Tai Chi's Effect on Heart Rate Variability Comparable to a Brisk Walk

Richard Hyer

October 08, 2007

October 8, 2007 (Chicago) -- The Asian exercise tai chi is comparable to but not quite as effective as a brisk walk for raising heart rate variability (HRV), according to a poster presented here at the American Academy of Family Physicians 2007 Annual Scientific Assembly.

The study of 24 healthy volunteers compared mean resting HRV with the percentage changes caused by practicing tai chi and walking and found tai chi to be "of similar intensity." The study was from the Catholic University of Korea, St. Mary's Hospital, under lead author Whanseok Choi.

In a 1992 paper in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, heart rate, blood pressure, and urinary catecholamine changes were shown to be similar for walking at 6 km/hour and tai chi, according to the poster. The current study was designed to measure the difference in HRV between 6 postures of tai chi and walking at 6 km/hour. This study was approved by the institutional review board of the Korean Society of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The study recruited 24 volunteers aged 24 to 35 years. Subjects either walked on a treadmill or performed 6-posture tai chi for 20 minutes with 5 minutes of rest. After a week, they changed to the other exercise. HRV data were recorded during both exercises.

Among the findings, mean heart rate was found to be 63.24 ± 25.07 bpm in those practicing tai chi and 64.02 ± 16.77 bpm in those walking ( P = .890).

Medscape Family Medicine asked Ellyn Stecker, MD, a family medicine physician from South Bend, Indiana, for her reaction to the poster.

"It...claims that if you walk at 6 km an hour, which is a little less than 3 miles, you'll get a similar heart rate and blood pressure change. So for people who can't walk because they have arthritis or whatever, they might be able to do [tai chi] and still achieve the same cardiovascular benefits," said Dr. Stecker.

"They're saying that this will give you a workout to get your heart rate up, but it may be kinder and gentler on your hips and knees. It's hard to imagine that, looking at the postures, but many may be combinations of things we do normally," Dr. Stecker said.

"For example, women doing housework might have to do all of those postures at some point, but with Tai Chi the postures are done in a systematic fashion," she pointed out. "So if people are happy doing that, they will achieve better flexibility.... When you're walking, you're really using only one set of muscles and direction, and in tai chi you're going to be using alternate muscles [and] perhaps having fewer spasms at the end of the day."

When asked whether she would consider prescribing tai chi, Dr. Stecker said, "I don't think of it very often, but if someone says they do it, I encourage them to continue. I would never discourage them from doing it."

Chandrakant Shah, MD, of Dublin, Georgia, a retired physician formerly with the Veterans Administration, told Medscape Family Medicine that he would prescribe Tai Chi to patients.

"I study geriatrics and have seen patients get lots of benefits from tai chi, particularly those with joint problems who can't do much other activity," Dr. Shah said. "Tai chi is lighter activity."

American Academy of Family Physicians 2007 Annual Scientific Assembly. Presented October 4, 2007.

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