Ancient art, modern health

Ancient art, modern health

Tai chi can alleviate osteoarthritis symptoms

By Tracy Brown Wright

Here, researcher Rhayun Song, left, and UF College of Nursing researcher Beverly Roberts, right, lead a class on tai chi./Photo by Sarah Kiewel

If forms of exercise were given awards, tai chi is contending for “best all-around,” according to researchers with the UF College of Nursing.

In addition to its known health benefits — including physical fitness, cardiovascular health and improving symptoms of diabetes — it can also improve muscle strength and bone mineral density, and decrease the fear of falling, according to a UF study featured in the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Among older women with osteoarthritis, those who participated in a supervised tai chi exercise program once a week for six months significantly improved their bone muscle density and muscle strength and decreased their fear of falling. All of these improvements combined can help to increase independence for older adults and reduce the risk of disability, researchers said.

“A loss in bone density and strength puts people at risk of fractures, which can lead to loss of independence and disability,” said Beverly Roberts, Ph.D., R.N., the Annabel Davis Jenks endowed professor at the College of Nursing. “Tai chi appears to have a similar affect on bone density as other exercises, but it is more accessible and attractive to older adults, making it easier for them to stick to this exercise routine.”

Her research, with Rhayun Song, Ph.D., R.N., of Chungham National University, studied older Korean residents. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art and mostly performed now for its health benefits. This low-impact exercise uses slow, coordinated flowing movements and combines these with breathing, imagery and relaxation.

Osteoarthritis, which affects nearly 27 million Americans, involves the degradation of joints and is accompanied by pain and tenderness. It typically causes a decrease in movement, which may lead to muscle atrophy and bone breakage. Risk factors include genetic, metabolic, developmental and mechanical causes.

Eighty-two subjects, mostly Korean women, participated in the study. Half of this group participated in a three-week supervised training period three times a week. For the remainder of the six months, they attended a supervised training session once a week. The other half served as a control group. Those who completed the sessions had significantly improved bone density, muscle strength and a decreased fear of falling. Comparatively, the control group actually showed decreased bone density and had no improvements in muscle strength and fear of falling.

“Not only did this study show improvements in muscle strength and bone density, both very important for older adults with osteoarthritis, it also decreased a fear of falling — a fear that can be crippling to those for which independence means so much,” Roberts said. “Further, the greater the fear of falling the more likely older adults will become sedentary, which increases the risk of disability.”

Roberts says future studies should include larger sample sizes and extend the training period for at least a year to be able to monitor long-term progress in bone density.

“Research on tai chi is rapidly expanding, and the diversity of its health benefits is also increasing, which can benefit a number of health conditions,” Roberts said.