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December 3, 2001

Study: Can martial arts help whip Parkinson's?

By Janet Christenbury


Ancient Chinese martial arts forms have been popular exercises used by seniors for years. Many find that the regular practice of these various martial arts helps improve balance, strength and body awareness.

Now, researchers at Emory are studying just how effective two Chinese mind-body exercises, Tai Chi and Qi Gong (pronounced Kai Gong), may be in patients with Parkinson’s disease. The goal is to determine if these exercise modalities can improve the motor and nonmotor disabilities associated with the disease. Investigators also intend to compare whether the potential benefits accrued from these “Eastern” exercise forms differ from those we assume can be gained from more “Western” forms, such as aerobic exercises.

“Participants in this trial are taught to train their minds as much as to train their bodies,” said Jorge Juncos, associate professor of neurology and the study’s principal investigator. “Our goal is to find out if these Chinese mind-body modalities can actually improve the many aspects of quality of life adversely affected in Parkinson’s disease.”

The trial is one of three new studies in the Emory Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurodegenerative Diseases. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health recently awarded Emory a five-year grant for the Center and three individual research grants totaling $5.7 million.

Participants taking part in this controlled, double-blind study are randomized into three groups. One-third will learn Tai Chi, described as meditation in movement using controlled breathing combined with a slow and precise flow of body postures. One-third will learn Qi Gong, described as meditation in stillness during which participants learn to better control their movements through directed visualization (imagery), meditation and controlled breathing. The remaining one-third will take part in an aerobic exercise program.

All participants will exercise for two hours a week in two sessions. The study will last for 16 weeks with two weeks of evaluations before and after the classes. Researchers will follow the participants for six months after the study to determine how many continued to pursue their designated exercise outside of the trial. They will also look at long-term behavior and analyze their progress following the study.

“Another goal of the study is to examine the importance of caloric expenditure, or burning calories through exercise, and its benefits on motor function that may result from exercise in Parkinson’s disease,” said Juncos, who has done extensive research with Parkinson’s patients over the years.

Participants learning Qi Gong will experience low caloric expenditure, since little movement is required for the exercise. Those learning Tai Chi will experience a moderate level of expenditure, and those in the aerobic exercise group will burn significantly more calories, since they will walk and bicycle in the gym.

Researchers at Georgia Tech are working in collaboration with Emory researchers on this study.

“Participants will spend time at the Georgia Tech Center for Human Movement Studies, or gait lab, before and after the 16-week exercise sessions,” said Steven Wolf, professor of rehabilitation medicine at Emory and co-principal investigator. “They will undergo a number of tests and evaluations in the movement analysis core of the trial. Gait and balance statistics will be recorded and analyzed under the supervision of myself and Robert Gregor, director of the Georgia Tech center.”

Wolf has previously studied the effects of Tai Chi on the elderly. A three-year investigation, which concluded in 1994, found that practicing Tai Chi significantly reduces the risk of falls among older people and may be beneficial in maintaining strength in people age 70 and older.

Participants in the study must have early to moderately advanced Parkinson’s disease. They must also be between the ages of 40 and 85, on stable medication treatment and not engaged in regular intense exercise more than twice a week. They must be able to walk independently most of the day and be capable of traveling to and from Emory during the 16-week trial.

To learn more about this study, call Emory Health Connection at 404-778-7777.


Back to Emory Report December 3, 2001