Can Tai Chi Treat Parkinson’s Disease?

Looking at the science behind the headlines

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Pictured: Healing, apparently. Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

As a society, we love a good news story about health. You see dozens of these a week, from the stories about coffee saving your life, to the industry-funded belief that blueberries are uniquely healthsome and good for your heart.

This week’s story is that Tai Chi — a Chinese martial art/form of gentle exercise that is popular with the elderly — can treat Parkinson’s disease. Having lost a family member to Parkinson’s, I read these headlines with great interest. If Tai Chi is really the secret to living longer with the condition, for which there is no cure, then it would be truly wonderful.

If you read the headlines, there’s serious reason to hope. Dozens of news stories are reporting that people with Parkinson’s disease can stave off the need for medication for years by practicing Tai Chi.

Pictured: Headline-worthy, apparently. Photo by Monica Leonardi on Unsplash

Unfortunately, the science behind these claims is really not that strong. While exercise in general is important for people with Parkinson’s, there’s no evidence that Tai Chi is any better than going for a walk.

The Study

The study that has everyone so excited is a new paper published in an offshoot of the British Medical Journal titled “Effect of long-term Tai Chi training on Parkinson’s disease: a 3.5-year follow-up cohort study”. If you read the news stories, this long-term research project followed people with Parkinson’s for 5 years, comparing a group using Tai Chi regularly to a control who did none of the martial art.

At the end of the study, it seems that people who used Tai Chi had seen fewer issues with their Parkinson’s than those who didn’t use it. Specifically, the people who did Tai Chi had slightly slower progression of their disease than their non-martial counterparts, and used slightly fewer medications as well. This sounds like great news!

I searched for the term “happy Tai Chi” but all I got was random women and a lot of sunflowers. Photo by Antonino Visalli on Unsplash