Tai chi shows promise for managing diabetes

NEW YORK Tue Apr 8, 2008 11:43am EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The ancient art of tai chi may help in controlling or lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, two small studies suggest.

In one study, Taiwanese researchers found that tai chi helped lower long-term blood sugar levels in 30 middle-aged adults with type 2 diabetes. In the second, an Australian team found that a combination of tai chi and qigong benefited 11 adults at risk of type 2 diabetes.

Both tai chi and qigong (pronounced "chee-kung") are ancient Chinese practices designed to promote good health. Qigong combines gentle movements, meditation and breathing techniques; tai chi involves slow, fluid movements combined with mental imagery and deep breathing.

Both are moderate, low-impact activities, and recent studies suggest that older adults could reap a number of health benefits from tai chi, such as lower blood pressure, a reduced fall risk and improved arthritis symptoms.

The new studies, both published online by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggest that tai chi might aid in managing type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome -- a collection of risk factors for diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

For the first study, Dr. Kuender Yang and colleagues at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital followed 30 middle-aged and older adults with type 2 diabetes, each of whom was matched with a diabetes-free "control" of the same age and sex. For 12 weeks, participants attended an hour-long tai chi class three times per week.

At the end of the study, Yang's team found that the diabetes' patients showed a reduction in their average HbA1c level -- a measure of long-term blood sugar control.

In the second study, Dr. Xin Liu and colleagues at the University of Queensland looked at the effects of a specially designed tai chi/qigong program among 11 middle-aged to older adults with elevated blood sugar.

Seven of them also had metabolic syndrome, including high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, unhealthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and impaired blood sugar control.

The researchers found that, after 12 weeks, participants showed a dip in both their average blood pressure level and waist size. There was also a small improvement in blood sugar control.

The findings are "very promising," Liu told Reuters Health. The researcher added, however, that this was only a small pilot study.

What's needed, Liu explained, are randomized controlled clinical trials, where participants are randomly assigned to either perform tai chi/qigong or serve as a comparison group. Liu's team has just completed such a study, but the results are not available yet.

SOURCE: British Journal of Sports Medicine, online April 1, 2008.

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