OCT 12, 2017 9:10 AM PDT

Tai Chi: An Alternative to Cardiac Rehab That Works

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker

The ancient art of Tai Chi could benefit heart disease patients who decline traditional cardiac rehabilitation, which, more often than not, people choose not to do. From the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University and the American Heart Association, researchers illustrate a safe way to get otherwise inactive individuals up and moving.


People recovering from a heart attack or heart surgery may opt out of cardiac rehab for a variety of reasons:

  • Logistical issues, cost and access to rehab center

  • Aversion to exercise

  • Cannot because of their condition

Now, for the first time, researchers provide evidence for Tai Chi as an effective alternative for people with little ability to do physical activity. Over time, Tai Chi could help these people get to the point where they are being more active.

"We thought that Tai Chi might be a good option for these people because you can start very slowly and simply and, as their confidence increases, the pace and movements can be modified to increase intensity," explained lead author Elena Salmoirago-Blotcher, MD, PhD. “Tai Chi exercise can reach low-to-moderate intensity levels. The emphasis on breathing and relaxation can also help with stress reduction and psychological distress."

What is Tai Chi? Described as a “mind and body practice” and “a way of moving,” Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial arts form practiced by millions of people all over the world. It is centered around mental focus, breathing, and relaxation, but it can also function as a form of combat or self-defense if performed rapidly. In the past, scientists have linked practicing Tai Chi with improved balance and stability, reduced knee pain from osteoarthritis, and enhanced mood.

In a study of 29 heart disease patients who declined traditional cardiac rehabilitation despite experiencing either a heart attack or procedure to reopen a blocked artery, researchers tested a particular Tai Chi routine. It had been previously used for lung disease and heart failure patients, and they tested its safety and the tendency of patients to attend with two different groups:

  • LITE: 24 classes over 12 weeks

  • PLUS: 52 classes over 24 weeks

Over time they saw that Tai Chi was safe, enjoyable, and well-attended. Neither program led to an increase in aerobic fitness, but for the people who completed the longer program, researchers saw an increase in weekly physical activity.

"On its own, Tai Chi wouldn't obviously replace other components of traditional cardiac rehabilitation, such as education on risk factors, diet and adherence to needed medications," said Salmoirago-Blotcher. "If proven effective in larger studies, it might be possible to offer it as an exercise option within a rehab center as a bridge to more strenuous exercise, or in a community setting with the educational components of rehab delivered outside of a medical setting."

The present study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Sources: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Beginners Tai Chi, Livestrong, American Heart Association

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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