Is Tai Chi of Use in Managing Diabetes?

older man getting instruction at tai chi class
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If you ever travel to China and go out early in the morning, you will find the parks filled with older Chinese men and women practicing tai chi, which looks like a combination between a slow-motion dance and martial arts sequence. For generations, Chinese people have been turning to tai chi for longevity and its other benefits. Think of it as if it were meditation in motion.

Of course, you have to wonder if tai chi really works. More specifically, you have to wonder how it works. How does this slow-motion practice slow the aging process? Does it reduce stress? Does it increase physical activity? Does it, as the practitioners believe, help balance energy and promote health? Researchers looked into this and found a surprising result: tai chi helps with diabetes.

Could Tai Chi Help Prevent and Manage Type 2 Diabetes?

Two small studies in Taiwan looked at diabetes and tai chi practice. The first study followed 30 people with Type 2 diabetes and matched them to 30 people with the same age and gender (but who did not have diabetes). All participants took a one-hour tai chi class three times a week for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12-week period, the people with diabetes showed a decrease in their HbA1c level -- HbA1c is used to measure how well the body can control blood sugar, an important sign of diabetes.

The other study, done in Australia, looked at 11 adults with elevated blood sugar (pre-diabetic). The researchers designed a special program that combined tai chi with another practice known as Qigong (a practice of creating and moving “chi” in the body through deep breathing and other exercises). Some of the 11 participants also had high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol (altogether making up metabolic syndrome). Like the first study, the participants underwent a 12-week program. Overall, blood pressure was improved and waist size in some of the participants even shrunk.

Both these studies are very small, but it is promising that such a simple practice can improve the overall health of the body. Combining tai chi with a healthful diet, other daily exercises and solid medical care could help people with diabetes and pre-diabetes to increase their health, manage their condition and prevent further symptoms.

More Trials Failed to Provide Evidence that Tai Chi was Good for Diabetes Management

A further clinical review of eight randomized clinical trials and two controlled clinical trials found no evidence that it was an effective therapy for type 2 diabetes. This shows the weakness of basing conclusions on small trials.

Systematic clinical reviews have been done to assess studies as to whether tai chi should be used therapeutically for conditions including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, cancer care and breast cancer. They consistently report that there is no evidence that tai chi is effective for treating or managing these conditions. A search of for clinical reviews of tai chi can show the latest in this research.

Other Benefits of Tai Chi

Tai chi may help with the aging process by improving balance, lowering blood pressure, reducing stress and improving flexibility. It is often done in a group, so there are social benefits as well. In addition, the benefits that tai chi masters report are that it balances the body’s inner energy (chi), which promotes health and longevity. Tai chi is low impact, and its motions can be adapted for people who have trouble standing. This is a great exercise for anyone, but especially for older adults.

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Article Sources

  • Lee MS, Choi TY, Lim HJ, Ernst E.. "Tai chi for management of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review." Chin J Integr Med. 2011 Oct;17(10):789-93. doi: 10.1007/s11655-011-0812-1. Epub 2011 Jul 30.
  • Shu-Hui Yeh, Hau Chuang, Li-Wei Lin, Chiu-Yueh Hsiao, Pei-Wen Wang, Rue-Tsuan Liu, and Kuender D Yang. Regular Tai Chi Chuan exercise improves T cell helper function of type 2 DM patients with an increase in T-bet transcription factor and IL-12 production. Br. J. Sports Med., Apr 2008.