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Low-Stress Chinese Exercise Seems to Benefit Heart-Failure Patients

Chinese women practice tai chi before performing for a crowd in Beijing (File Photo)
Chinese women practice tai chi before performing for a crowd in Beijing (File Photo)

Researchers say the ancient Chinese meditative exercise of tai chi appears to improve the mood and outlook of patients with chronic heart failure, a condition in which the heart grows increasingly weak and unable to pump enough blood to meet the demands of the body.

There was a time when doctors did not want their heart failure patients to exercise because they worried it could worsen their condition, which can be fatal. Because their hearts are unable to pump blood quickly enough throughout their bodies, patients with heart failure often have shortness of breath, coughing, exercise intolerance and swollen ankles.

But experts now say easy, low-stress exercise, especially the kind involved in tai chi, can lead to a significant improvement in a patient’s day-to-day outlook.

Gloria Yeh is a doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She led a study that looked at the effect of tai chi on heart failure patients. "If you’ve seen it, it’s a very gentle kind of a much more accessible type of exercise for patients who may be deconditioned and not be willing or able to do other types of exercise," Yeh said.

Researchers led by Yeh recruited 100 patients with heart failure from Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, and enrolled them in a 12-week program of gentle tai chi exercise.

Tai chi includes several components that investigators believed might benefit patients, including deep breathing, meditation, aerobic exercise, cognitive restructuring and social interactions with others in the group.

Another set of heart failure patients was enrolled in an education-only group.

At the end of three months, researchers assessed the physical and mental health of both groups of patients, using physical measurements and tests designed to measure patients’ mood. Investigators found that the walking group burned significantly more calories than the tai chi patients.

Yeh says those who took tai chi for 12 weeks fared better overall. "At the end of the trial, we saw that the patients in the tai chi training group improved their quality of life, their mood, their confidence to perform exercise-related activities. So it was above and beyond what we saw in the education group," Yeh said,

Depression is often a serious problem in heart failure patients and Yeh says any improvement in their mood is extremely important.

She says researchers want to understand how therapies like tai chi benefit the body and mind, and how best to integrate them in treatment regimens so patients benefit the most.

A study on the value of tai chi in treating heart failure patients is published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

An earlier version of this story contained an erroneous reference to daily six-minute walks by the education-only patient control group, and an erroneous comparison of calorie-burning rates between the control and tai-chi groups. These references have been deleted. in this version. We apologize for the errors.