Tai Chi Has More Benefits than Aerobic Exercise for Fibromyalgia, Study Shows

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Tai chi results in similar or greater improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms when compared to aerobic exercise, according to a new study from Tufts University and Brown University. Aerobic exercise, a core part of standard fibromyalgia treatment, is the most commonly prescribed nondrug treatment for the disorder, which can involve widespread pain, tenderness, fatigue, and other symptoms. Findings from the new study, however, suggest that tai chi is another therapeutic option. The study, partially funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), was published in the BMJ.

Its Effectiveness in comparison with standard aerobics exercises

This single-blind randomised controlled trial (RCT) investigated the effectiveness of tai chi compared with standard aerobics exercises for people with fibromyalgia. Researchers found there were greater benefits in terms of FIQR score improvements in people who did tai chi, compared with standard aerobics exercise, when done twice a week for 24 weeks.

Doing tai chi long term (24 weeks as opposed to 12) was also found to have greater benefits. The researchers suggest that tai chi should be considered as a therapeutic option for the management of fibromyalgia. Although the sample size was small, this was an interesting and well-conducted trial. The assessors were blinded to the type of exercise the participants had been allocated to, and outcomes were measured using validated questionnaires. It’s worth noting that the quality of tai chi sessions would be dependent on the standard of the instructor and the movements recommended.

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a traditional Chinese mind and body practice that combines meditation with deep breathing, relaxation, and gentle movements. Past research found that tai chi lessened pain and improved physical and mental health in patients with fibromyalgia. However, larger and more rigorous studies were needed to confirm the benefits. The new study’s purpose was to help fill that knowledge gap by comparing the effectiveness of tai chi with that of aerobic exercise and determining whether tai chi’s effects were related to its frequency and duration.

Does this mean everyone with fibromyalgia should try tai chi?

As is true for most treatments, there is not a single best option in all circumstances. It may not work well for those who don’t like tai chi (or don’t give it a chance), or feel they cannot participate due to poor balance, weakness, or other health problems. In addition, the study itself is not the last word on which activities are best for people with fibromyalgia. Not everyone will have access to high-quality tai chi instructors (though in this study, results were consistent across three instructors). Skeptics will point out that since study subjects knew which treatment they were getting, the placebo effect could account for the findings. And, of course, there are countless other exercise programs that were not included in this study.

Tai chi is a therapeutic option in the multidisciplinary management of fibromyalgia.

The researchers noted that extensive evidence has suggested that aerobic exercise is effective in treating fibromyalgia. Some patients with fibromyalgia, however, struggle with exercise programs. This study showed that tai chi appears to be as effective or better for managing fibromyalgia, that a longer duration of tai chi results in greater benefits, and those patients are more likely to attend tai chi classes than aerobic exercise sessions. The researchers therefore concluded that tai chi may be a therapeutic option in the multidisciplinary management of fibromyalgia.

Some things you need to consider before doing tai chi

Would I recommend tai chi for other patients with a fibromyalgia diagnosis? My answer is a qualified yes. These are some of the things you need to consider:

>make sure that you discuss it with your doctor first

>many instructors will offer you a free introductory class—use this to make sure it is a good match for you

>if the exercise hurts, stop and speak up—the instructor can show you how to adapt and if this does not help, it is best not to continue

>quality matters—the instructor will need to be trained and certified to teach people recovering from injury

>consider the investment of your resources the hour in class, transportation, costs—and balance these against benefit

>ask before you start how long it usually takes before students see a benefit

>some physiotherapy groups offer tai chi with other services, ask if this can be bundled for you as a reimbursed intervention if a doctor prescribes it.

It’s for All Ages

Tai Chi is a gentle art. So much so that people of almost any age or physical condition can undertake it. In fact, many prominent teachers began their careers teaching Tai Chi late in life.

Also Read: Best Exercises and Workouts for Chronic Pain of Fibromyalgia

Strength and Endurance

Tai Chi has proven to be an exercise with significant benefits in the areas of balance, upper- and lower-body muscular strength and endurance, and upper- and lower-body flexibility, particularly in older adults.

Aerobic Capacity

Aerobic capacity diminishes as we age, but research on traditional forms of aerobic exercises has shown that it can improve with regular training. In another meta-analytic study, researchers looked at seven studies focusing on the effects of Tai Chi on aerobic capacity in adults with an average age of 55 years.


Walking speed decreases with age and research suggests that it may be associated with an increased risk of falling. In one study, however, it was found that individuals who practiced Tai Chi walked significantly more steps than individuals who did not.

Stress Relief

The breathing, movement, and mental concentration required of individuals who practice Tai Chi are the perfect distraction from their hectic lifestyles. The mind-body connection is also important here, as it has been reported that breathing combined with body movement and hand-eye coordination promotes calmness.

Research Reference: Tai Chi Has Similar or Greater Benefits Than Aerobic Exercise for Fibromyalgia, Study Shows, NCCIH, NIH. Link


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