Tai Chi for Diabetes

You're bored with the treadmill and the stationary bike, and you don't feel like taking up golf or tennis. Still, you'd like to incorporate some form of exercise into your routine. If you've never considered tai chi, you just may want to give this traditional Chinese martial art a try. It's not only gentle and relaxing, but easy on the joints.

Practicing tai chi may help keep your diabetes in check, according to two small studies in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. In one study, researchers set out to analyze what impact a 12-week program of tai chi would have on T-cell activity in patients with type 2 diabetes. T-cells are an important part of your body's immune system, and they make the potent chemicals known as interleukins which can actually change your immune system response.

The scientists found when participants practiced tai chi, the levels of one substance that boosts the immune response, interleukin-12, rose, and another substance, which reduces the immune response, interleukin-4, went down. The participants' blood sugar levels also improved. Researchers theorize that tai chi may increase feelings of well-being in the participants, which in turn may help strengthen the immune system.

In a second study, participants suffering from hypertension and high blood sugar did tai chi and qigong (a related form of Chinese exercise) for 12 weeks. At the end of the program, they'd lost weight, dropped their waist size and improved their blood pressure. Also, their insulin resistance declined and they said they were sleeping better, experiencing more energy, and having fewer food cravings.

So what's tai chi about?  It's non-competitive, graceful, and consists of gentle physical exercises that keep you moving--but not to the point where you feel pushed.

"It's wonderful at improving stress," says Steven Joyal, MD, medical director at the Life Extension Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Stress has an adverse effect on blood glucose control and so this form of exercise can really help."

For many diabetics who may have other health problems, tai chi works because it's not overly taxing, explains Matthew Edlund, MD, author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is not Enough. "Tai chi can be both a spiritual experience and a social experience," Edlund explains. "It's very low-impact, even no-impact."

Need more reasons to give tai chi a try? It's inexpensive, you don't need any special equipment, you can do it by yourself or in a group, and you can do it inside or outside. Just one caveat: as with any form of exercise, check with your health care provider before getting started. Then relax, breathe deep and prepare to feel serene. Tai chi is so enjoyable that you may very well stick with it for the long haul.


X. Liu, Y.D. Miller, N.S. Burton, W.J. Brown, "Preliminary study of the effect of tai chi and qigong medical exercise on indicators of metabolic syndrome and glycaemic control in adults with raised blood glucose levels." British Journal of Sports Medicine, Online First April 2008. http://bjsm.bmj.com/

S.H. Yeh, H. Chuang, L.W. Lin, C.Y. Hsiao, P.W. Wang, R.T. Liu, K.D. Yang, "Regular tai chi chuan exercise improves T cell helper function of patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus with an increase in T-bet transcription factor and IL-12 production."  British Journal of Sports Medicine, Online First, April 2008. http://bjsm.bmj.com/