In the University of Florida study of adults diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, those who participated in a supervised tai chi exercise program two days a week with three days of home practice for six months significantly lowered their fasting blood glucose levels, improved their management of the disease, and enhanced their overall quality of life, including mental health, vitality and energy.
"Tai chi really has similar effects as other aerobic exercises on diabetic control. The difference is tai chi is a low-impact exercise, which means that it's less stressful on the bones, joints and muscles than more strenuous exercise," said Beverly Roberts, Ph.D., R.N., the Annabel Davis Jenks endowed professor at the UF College of Nursing.
Roberts, with Rhayun Song, Ph.D., R.N., of Chungham National University, studied tai chi's effect on older Korean residents. The research was featured in the June issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Diabetes occurs when the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life.
Risk factors include obesity, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy eating habits, high blood pressure and cholesterol, a history of gestational diabetes and increased age, many of which can be reduced through exercise.
"People assume that for exercise to be beneficial you have to be huffing and puffing, sweating and red-faced afterward," Roberts said.
"This may turn people off, particularly older adults. However, we have found that activities like tai chi can be just as beneficial in improving health," the expert added.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow, gentle circular movements. This low impact exercise uses shifts in body position and stepping in coordination with arm movements.
Sixty-two participants, mostly Korean women, took part in the study. Half the group participated in at least 80 percent of two supervised sessions one hour per week, with three days of home practice for six months, and the other half served as a control group. Those who completed the sessions had significantly improved glucose control and reported higher levels of vitality and energy.
"Those who participated in the tai chi sessions actually had lower blood glucose at three and six months," Roberts said.
"Those individuals also had lower hemoglobin A1c, which means they had better diabetic control," the expert said.
In addition to improved blood glucose levels, participants also reported significantly improved mental health.