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Going with the Flow

How Tai Chi Helps Heart Failure Patients

If you're upset, you may find yourself taking a deep breath to calm down. It's a quick solution to bring you to a more relaxed state. A recent study conducted by researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that the ancient Chinese exercise, tai chi, which is rooted in slow meditative breathing and movement, has also proven to have positive mood-altering effects, specifically in patients suffering from heart failure.

Click on the video to the right to watch a tai chi demonstration >>

Heart failure is a chronic disease with symptoms that include shortness of breath, swollen ankles and coughing. Because moderate or high-intensity exercise can exacerbate symptoms, it was once common for doctors to advise heart failure patients not to exercise.

"For patients who need a safe alternative to low-to-moderate intensity conventional exercise, tai chi has a good rate of adherence and has proven to have many benefits for patients with heart failure," says Gloria Yeh, MD, MPH, a physician in Division of General Medicine And Primary Care at BIDMC and an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Research and Education in Complimentary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Harvard Medical School.

While it has its roots in martial arts, tai chi's "dance-like" movements are frequently used to promote relaxation and feelings of tranquility. In fact, some practitioners refer to it as a "moving meditation." The practice of tai chi can also provide improved flexibility, balance and stress reduction.

In BIDMC's study, researchers divided 100 heart-failure patients into two groups. The control group received only heart-education training. The other group enrolled in a 12-week tai chi course.

At the end of the courses, both groups completed a six-minute walk and took the Minnesota Living with Heart Failure Questionnaire, a survey designed in 1984 to gauge the impact that heart failure can have on quality of life. The group also used a "Profile of Mood States" tool to assess emotional state. Monitored results from the walk showed that while oxygen intake was similar for both groups, those who were enrolled in the tai chi class burned significantly more calories than those who were not.

Perhaps even more noteworthy are the results obtained from patients' answers to the questionnaire. Researchers found that those enrolled in the tai chi class reported a more positive life outlook and felt more energetic than their counterparts, whose mood and vigor scores actually worsened after completing their trainings.

"Patients can feel unhappy and discouraged because chronic heart failure is a progressive and debilitating disease," said James Chang, MD, a heart-failure specialist at the CardioVascular Institute. "Exercise can help with a positive outlook, but it's important to find gentle exercise that won't exacerbate the condition. We're pleased that Dr. Yeh's study has validated the appropriateness of tai chi."

The study yielded a "mind-of-the-beholder" type of result. Although both groups of patients remained on par with one another in terms of actual level of health, the tai chi group felt healthier in body and mind. The results proved to researchers that tai chi or a similar meditatively-based exercise as a companion to traditional medical care improved the lives of heart patients.

Marie-Helene Jouvin, M.D., a Research Associate at BIDMC's Division of Allergy and Immunology, is also an instructor at Brookline Tai Chi. "Most of my students come to class to address medical issues or stress levels," she says. "Once students learn the movements, we tell them to let the tai chi do the work - to trust the flow of the movement rather than trying to control it. I've seen many students - not just heart patients - enhance their ability to relax and, as a result, improve their quality of life."

Posted August 2011

Contact Information

CardioVascular Institute at
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215