People with chronic conditions sometimes find it difficult to exercise, thus missing out on the health benefits of physical activity. Might tai chi, a gentle exercise that originated in China, be a viable option?

THIS STUDY analyzed data from 24 studies, involving 1,594 adults (most in their 60s and 70s) who had one or more chronic conditions: osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure or breast cancer. All studies were randomized, with about half of the participants practicing tai chi — on average, two to three times a week for 12 weeks — and the others either doing another type of exercise or waiting to join a tai chi program.

No matter which of the chronic condition they had, people who practiced tai chi showed improvement on physical performance tests, including muscle strength, when compared with those who did not do tai chi. With tai chi, those who had osteoarthritis reported less pain and stiffness, and people with COPD had fewer instances of severe shortness of breath. Comparing those who did and did not do tai chi, people with osteoarthritis, heart failure or COPD on average assessed their quality of life as improved, but those with cancer did not. Practicing tai chi did not have much if any effect on depression.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? People of middle age and older. Since 2000 if not earlier, the number of Americans with multiple chronic conditions has been increasing. Today, about 21 percent of people 45 to 64 years old have two or more chronic conditions, as do 45 percent of those 65 and older. Tai chi, though developed centuries ago as a martial art for self-defense, has evolved into a mind-and-body practice that involves low-impact, slow, flowing movements, sometimes described as “meditation in motion.” It requires no equipment and is generally considered safe exercise.

CAVEATS The severity of participants’ conditions varied from study to study, as did the type of tai chi they practiced. The analysis did not include studies involving people with other chronic conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or other types of cancer.

FIND THIS STUDY Sept. 18 online issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine (bjsm.bmj.com; click “Online First”).

LEARN MORE ABOUT chronic conditions at www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview. Learn about tai chi at health.harvard.edu (search for “tai chi”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.

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