HONG KONG — Tai chi has been around a long time. The ancient form of exercise involving sequences of slow and controlled movements is a Chinese martial art that is listed as an intangible cultural heritage by Unesco, the United Nation’s world heritage body.
But despite its centuries-old lineage, new discoveries are being made about the potential benefits of this increasingly popular exercise.
According to a new study in the United States, tai chi — also known as taijiquan — combined with thinking exercises could help improve mental processes and multitasking in older adults who have trouble with their memory.
Researchers said they found that the effects lasted for six months after training at home finished, suggesting that the cognitively enhanced programme could ameliorate two to three years of cognitive decline in at-risk people, helping them live independently for longer.
“Moderate-intensity taijiquan movement therapy with cognitive enhancement was clinically superior to standard taijiquan and stretching exercise in improving… cognition and reducing dual-task interference during walking,” the team, led by researchers at the Oregon Research Institute, wrote in an article published on Tuesday (Oct 31) in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
In the study, the researchers added challenges related to dual-tasking to regular tai chi to see if they produced extra cognitive benefits.
For example, participants were asked to complete a tai chi form while being deliberately told the wrong forms by the instructor, practising recall of the names and numbers of forms, and performing forms without verbal or visual cues.
The clinical study recruited about 320 adults aged 65 years or above with self-reported memory decline or mild cognitive impairment, which can be precursors to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in particular. They had no major difficulties in daily activities such as walking.
The participants performed cognitively enhanced tai chi, standard tai chi or stretching at home via real-time videoconferencing one hour, twice per week for 24 weeks to compare the effectiveness of the varied routines.
The team’s standard tai chi programme, “Taijiquan: Moving for Better Balance”, is listed in the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention compendium of effective fall interventions. It was specifically designed with older adults in mind and consists of only eight forms, making it easier to learn.
Study author Peter Harmer, a senior associate research scientist at the institute, said the results showed that the enhanced practice improved both cognitive function and dual-task walking in older adults who had trouble with their memory, and experienced difficulty in performing two tasks at once during daily routines.
These activities include walking while using a phone, cooking while watching television or listening to the radio, or driving while following GPS directions.
“The changes potentially have a direct impact on participants’ quality of life due to improved ability to engage in daily activities,” said Prof Harmer, who is also a professor emeritus of exercise and health science at Willamette University in the US state of Oregon.
He said participants gave uniformly positive feedback, citing one person who used to have five to seven minor “brain fogs” a day.
After several months of tai chi with memory exercises, the woman said episodes like walking upstairs and forgetting why she had gone, happened much less — around one to two times per week.
“Tai chi appeals to a wide range of the American population,” Prof Harmer said. A 2022 study estimated that around 1.7 per cent of the US adult population, or 4 million people, practised tai chi in 2017.
The team is now preparing to expand the programme, training more people with the protocol and partnering with more organisations that could offer it to their members.
“This successful test of our [online] programme as eHealath or telemedicine will allow us to scale up in ways not possible with in-person formats and offer courses virtually across the country and the world, reaching previously unserved and underserved populations,” Prof Harmer said.
He said the next step was to examine the impact of enhanced tai chi in people with more severe limitations, and identify the specific neurological mechanisms that helped to create the cognitive and coordination gains achieved in this study.
A separate study published last week found that tai chi might help curb symptoms and complications of Parkinson’s disease for several years.
The research, conducted by scientists in Shanghai, found that practising tai chi twice a week was associated with slower disease progression and lower doses of required medication over time. SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST