RWJF Nurse Scientist Discovers New Health Benefits of Tai Chi

RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar finds that stroke survivors who practice Tai Chi may be less likely to fall.

    • February 6, 2013

Ruth E. Taylor-Piliae practiced and studied nursing in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China. Now she’s bringing a bit of China back home to the United States—and U.S. stroke survivors stand to benefit.

During her 15 years in Hong Kong, Taylor-Piliae, PhD, RN, FAHA, marveled at the many practitioners of Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art that involves slow physical movements, extended concentration, and relaxed breathing.

A cardiovascular nurse scientist, she was well aware of the health benefits of the ancient art. Among healthy older adults, it has been found to improve balance, blood pressure, and mood. But she wondered if the practice carried similar benefits for stroke survivors, a population she studies in her research. “These are some of the biggest issues that stroke survivors are dealing with, yet nobody was looking into how Tai Chi could potentially help this population.”

When she returned to the United States in 2001, she decided to take a look at this herself.

An assistant professor at the College of Nursing at the University of Arizona and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar (2009-2012), Taylor-Piliae conducted a study on the effects of Tai Chi in adult stroke survivors and found that the practice may reduce falls. In older adults, falls can be more dangerous, causing bone fractures, decreased mobility, social isolation, and loss of independence.

Taylor-Piliae presented the findings on February 6 at the International Stroke Conference in Hawaii. The research was funded by grants from RWJF and the American Heart Association.

“Learning how to find and maintain your balance after a stroke is a challenge,” Taylor-Piliae said. “Tai Chi is effective in improving both static and dynamic balance.”

Tai Chi has added benefits for older adults, she said. It’s inexpensive, readily available, and can be practiced indoors or out. It is also taught in groups, which offers the benefits of socialization.

For her study, Taylor-Piliae recruited 89 elderly stroke survivors for a 12-week trial. Thirty-one participants took part in Silver Sneakers, a popular fitness program for senior citizens; 30 practiced Tai Chi; and 28 participated in “usual care” for stroke survivors.

Participants in the Tai Chi and Silver Sneakers groups showed improved aerobic endurance, but there was a clear difference in the rate of falls. Participants in the Tai Chi program reported only five falls during the trial period, while participants in the Silver Sneakers and usual care groups reported 14 and 15 falls, respectively.

“I was really surprised how striking the result was,” Taylor-Piliae said. She hopes the findings will raise awareness about the benefits of the martial art among stroke survivors and encourage health care providers to recommend the practice more often.

 “Tai Chi is called a ‘moving meditation,’ she said. “Practitioners learn to balance while moving, which is a useful skill in everyday life. It has real-world benefits.”

Learn more about the RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars program.

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