Kung Fu Fighting Softens the Blow of Neurodegeneration

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Martial arts training has long been known to have widespread health and wellness benefits. In recent years, scientific research into such effects of martial arts training has significantly increased. This includes attempts to assess the impact of training on function in neurological disorders and neurodegenerative disease. The Chinese internal martial art of Tai Chi Chuan has been well-studied, especially in older adults, but large studies unfolding over many years have been lacking until recently.

Gen Li and research colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine in the People’s Republic of China just published their observations after tracking almost four years of Tai Chi Chuan training in older adults with Parkinson’s Disease. These scientists wanted to know if long-term martial arts training could have a lasting effect in improving function in Parkinson’s patients. While such interventions are not curative, the idea is that training could reduce or slow the progression of disease.

They studied two groups of about 150 people, one “control” group whose members were relatively inactive, and the other whose members had Tai Chi Chuan training twice per week for an hour each session. This unfolded over almost four years, an important and novel aspect of this work.

Martial Arts Training Moderates Decline in Neurodegeneration

Their key findings were that “Tai Chi training reduced the annual changes in the deterioration of the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale and delayed the need for increasing antiparkinsonian therapies.” As such, the yearly increase in daily dosage of drugs like levodopa was found to be significantly lower in the group trained in martial arts than for the control group. There was also evidence for overall effects on motor and non-motor symptoms like dystonia, restless leg syndrome, and cognitive decline.

This research clearly demonstrates that Tai Chi Chuan training has a long-term beneficial therapeutic effect and could be used in the management of Parkinson’s. They suggest that “long-term beneficial effect … could prolong the time during which patients are non-disabled, resulting in a higher quality of life, a lower caregiver burden and less drug usage.” Future studies in larger samples and assessing interactive approaches with other therapeutic modalities would be welcome.

Training First Can Help You Last

Physical activity can have a moderating effect on the rate of functional decline and progression in neurodegeneration. While Tai Chi Chuan has received perhaps the most attention as a modality, therapeutic benefits are likely to be found in any traditional martial art that can be adapted across the lifespan. Effects beyond the basic exercise provided by martial arts training include the holistic addition of context, enjoyment, mindfulness, accessibility, and sustainability. No matter the scenario, there are multiple benefits to traditional holistic and mindful martial arts training for all ages.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2023).

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