The gentle, flowing movements of tai chi may offer older women an exercise program they can live with, researchers said Friday.
In a study of 27 older Chinese women with risk factors for heart disease, researchers found that all but one woman completed their 12-week tai chi program - a completion rate not usually seen in similar exercise studies.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice that focuses on building strength, balance and flexibility through slow, fluid movements combined with mental imagery and deep breathing.
Studies have suggested that the elderly can reduce their risk of falls, lower their blood pressure and ease arthritis symptoms through the practice, and some research indicates tai chi can improve heart and blood vessel function in both healthy people and those with heart conditions.
Tai chi can be as intense a workout for the heart as brisk walking - a form of exercise commonly advocated for older adults - and could serve as an alternative to the treadmill, according to Ruth E. Taylor-Piliae, a doctoral candidate at the University of California San Francisco and co-author of the new study.
The rate of satisfaction with the tai chi program in this study was “very high,” she told Reuters Health, in large part because the exercise was “culturally appropriate” for the women.
But that does not mean women of other ethnic backgrounds won’t take to tai chi, Taylor-Piliae said, noting that the study classes have continued as community classes and have grown in diversity.
She presented the study results Friday in Orlando at the Second International Conference on Women, Heart Disease and Stroke.
The study involved older Chinese women living in San Francisco who had one major risk factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, High cholesterol or diabetes. For 12 weeks, the women took one-hour tai chi classes three times a week at a community center.
None of the women, according to Taylor-Piliae, fell or suffered an injury, and only one woman dropped out of the classes. That so many women stuck with the program is important, she said, because women, in particular, often drop out of such exercise studies - typically at rates of 40 percent or more.
Many factors, Taylor-Piliae said, could have kept the women interested in tai chi. Besides the relevance to the women’s culture, the classes had a social aspect and were held in a community center that was easy for them to get to.
She recommended that older people who wish to try tai chi should take classes in the Yang style, which uses particularly gentle movement. In general, experts advise the elderly to look for classes where the instructor has experience working with older students and knows how to modify movements for those with physical limitations.
A local senior center, Taylor-Piliae said, is a good place to start looking for classes.
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.