The dance-like exercise tai chi, practiced by tens of millions of people in China and around the world, can help curb symptoms of type 2 diabetes, say a pair of studies released Tuesday.
In separate experiments conducted in Australia and Taiwan, diabetes patients who performed tai chi for a few hours a week over a three-month period showed significant health improvement compared to control groups.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body fails to produce or process enough insulin, which play a critical role in converting glucose into energy.
The disease, which afflicts some 250 million worldwide, can cause blindness, kidney failure, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Other forms of moderate exercise have been shown to help keep the disease in check, the researchers point out.
But "these Chinese exercises may be easier to learn than gym-based exercises and do not require any complicated or expensive equipment," conclude the University of Queensland team, led by Wendy Brown.
The worldwide diabetes epidemic is directly linked to a sedentary lifestyle and obesity, but heart-pounding exertion is not necessarily good either, say the studies, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Strenuous physical activity depresses the immune system response, they say, while moderate exercise seems to have the opposite effect.
Developed in China and dating back at least to the 13th century, tai chi combines elements of martial arts and meditation.
Experiments in Taiwan led by Kuender Yang assessed the impact of a 12-week programme of tai chi exercises on T-helper cells among 30 patients with Type 2 diabetes and 30 healthy people of the same age.
T cells are a key component of the body's immune system, producing powerful chemicals, including interleukins, that are critical to a healthy response against invaders
At the end of the programme, levels of glycated haemoglobin -- excess sugar carried by red blood cells -- fell significantly in the diabetic patients.
Levels of interleukin-12, which boosts the immune response, doubled, while T cell activity -- a sign of health -- also significantly increased.
Tai chi may prompt a fall in blood glucose levels, or improve blood glucose metabolism, which in turn sparks a drop in the inflammatory response, the researchers conjecture.
In the Australian study, a 12-week programme of tai chi and qigong -- another Chinese exercise that emphasises breathing technique -- prompted a significant improvement in blood glucose levels and "metabolic syndrome" in 11 middle-aged and older adults.
The metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms, including high blood pressure, blood glucose, associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The 13 participants exercised for up to 1.5 hours, up to three times a week, and were also encouraged to practice the exercises at home.
At the end of the 12 weeks, they had lost an average of three kilos (6.6 pounds) in weight and their waist size had dropped by an average of almost three centimetres (1.2 inches).
Blood pressure also fell significantly, and by more than would have been expected from the weight loss alone, said the authors.
Participants said they slept better, had more energy, felt less pain and had fewer food cravings while on the programme.