Tai Chi for COPD - An Alternative to Pulmonary Rehab

Last updated: July 2018

There are a number of treatment approaches for COPD. Some people benefit from medication, while others improve their breathing and quality of life by going on supplemental oxygen. But pulmonary rehabilitation is an approach that is noninvasive. Plus, it can make a big difference in how you feel and in your ability to manage your disease effectively. Just about every person who has COPD can benefit from pulmonary rehab.

Now, a recent study suggests there may be another approach that is just as effective -- tai chi. So I thought it made sense to look at both treatment methods and compare them, to help you make the best decision for you.

What Is Pulmonary Rehab?

Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR for short) is a team-centered, group program that includes exercise, education and support to help you live your best life possible. It is most often prescribed before and/or after lung surgery, but anyone with chronic lung disease can benefit from it. This is true even of those in the most advanced stages of the disease.

More specifically, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, it can include:

  • Exercise training
  • Nutrition advice
  • Teaching about COPD and how to manage it
  • Energy-conserving techniques
  • Breathing methods
  • Emotional health support

Although it can occur in the home setting, most of the time it is carried out in a hospital or clinic. Your pulmonary rehab team will probably consist of doctors, nurses, and various types of specialists, such as:

  • Respiratory therapist
  • Nutritionist or dietitian
  • Physical and/or occupational therapists
  • Psychologist or social worker

Your team will tailor your plan to your specific needs, and it can be adjusted as you progress through it. It usually lasts over a fairly long period of time. Some activities will occur in the form of group classes, while others may be more individualized.

Pulmonary Rehab Pros and Cons

There can be many benefits from PR. Besides becoming more knowledgeable and confident about managing your disease, you will also become stronger by improving your fitness level. Your breathing may improve and some of your symptoms may abate. You will be better able to function in your life. You may even find that it helps with any anxiety and/or depression you have. All of these benefits should improve your overall quality of life.

PR is relatively safe, since you will be closely supervised throughout. It is often covered by insurance, but not always. If you don't have adequate insurance coverage, it could be expensive, like most health care. Depending on your ability to drive or your access to transportation resources, it could also be hard to get to your appointments on a regular basis.

So, for these reasons, let's look at another possible option that provides similar benefits, tai chi.

What Is Tai Chi?

Tai chi is an ancient martial arts practice originating in China. According to the Tai Chi for Health Institute, it is an art that embraces mind, body and spirit. It's a form of graceful, flowing movement that aims to:

"...cultivate the qi or life energy within us to flow smoothly and powerfully throughout the body. Total harmony of the inner and outer self comes from the integration of mind and body, empowered through healthy qi through the practice of tai chi."

It was originally developed as a form of self defense, but is now used for stress reduction and other health benefits. Tai chi students practice a series of movements in a slow, focused manner that is accompanied by deep breathing. It is sometimes referred to as meditation in motion. You flow from one posture to another without pause and it may involve stretching. There are different forms and styles of tai chi that may be practiced. Some focus more on health, while others focus more on the martial arts aspect.

Tai Chi Pros and Cons

Tai chi has been shown to have many health benefits, and may include:

  • Better balance, muscle strength and flexibilty
  • Improvements in mood
  • Increases in energy and stamina
  • Better heart health
  • Improvements in sleep
  • Better overall quality of life

As you can see, the benefits are quite similar to those from pulmonary rehab. Additionally, tai chi is something anyone can learn to do, without having to access health care professionals or institutions. It is also likely less costly, although probably not covered by insurance. Plus, it may be more accessible in certain areas.

A recent study by the State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease in Guangzhou, China looked at whether tai chi could specifically help with respiratory health. Here are some of the details of the study:

  • 120 participants who had COPD, but had never received a bronchodilator medicine before the study
  • Half the subjects were taught tai chi 5  hours a week over 12 weeks, with the option to continue another 12 weeks
  • Other half received traditional pulmonary rehabilitation

The results showed that after the initial 12 weeks, the outcome measures were almost equally favorable with either approach. This suggests that tai chi can be a "viable alternative" to pulmonary rehab. The participants who elected to continue tai chi for the second round of 12 weeks saw additional benefits in reduction of shortness of breath and improvement in muscle strength.

As tai chi is a very gentle form of exercise, the risks are low. However, as with any exercise modality, there is some risk of overuse injury when not properly trained or supervised.

In Summary

Tai chi may offer a more sustained benefit than pulmonary rehabilitation. At the very least, it offers a similar benefit and could be used as an ongoing treatment once rehab is finished. Or it might be offered as an alternative when PR is not easily accessed or the costs are prohibitive.

Tai chi classes and training are now offered in many community centers, fitness gyms and senior centers. There are also numerous books and videos available. It's not hard to learn the basic forms of tai chi. So you may want to consider adding this to your COPD treatment plan. But, first, be sure to discuss it with your health care team to make sure it's the right choice for you and your COPD health.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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