03 September 2007

Tai chi may boost immunity

The traditional Chinese arts of tai chi and qigong may help boost older adults' immune response to the flu vaccine, a preliminary study suggests.

The traditional Chinese arts of tai chi and qigong may help boost older adults' immune response to the flu vaccine, a preliminary study suggests.

Older adults are advised to have a flu shot every year, as they are at risk of flu complications such as pneumonia. However, some older people fail to have a strong enough immune response to the vaccine to confer protection from the flu virus.

In the new study, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested whether a combination of tai chi and qigong might bolster older adults' immune responses to the flu vaccine.

Both tai chi and qigong (pronounced "chee-kung") are ancient Chinese practices designed to promote good health. Qigong combines gentle movements, meditation and breathing techniques; tai chi involves slow, fluid movements combined with mental imagery and deep breathing.

Studies show exercise good for elderly
Recent studies have indicated that older adults can reap a number of health benefits from tai chi, such as lower blood pressure, a lower risk of falls and improved arthritis symptoms.

The effects of tai chi on immune function have been less researched, but one recent study found that the practice seemed to enhance older adults' immunity against the varicella-zoster virus, which causes shingles.

The current study involved 50 adults in their 70s, about half of whom started a regimen of tai chi and qigong. They had three one-hour classes per week, where they learned a series of gentle movements and practised standing and seated meditation. The rest of the study participants served as a comparison group.

At the start of the study, all participants received a flu vaccine.

Blood tests taken over the next five months showed that the tai chi/qigong group produced more antibodies against the flu virus than the comparison group had - signalling a better response to the flu vaccine.

The findings are published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine.

Larger studies still needed
While the results suggest that tai chi and qigong may improve older adults' response to the flu vaccine, this is only a "proof-of-concept study," lead author Dr Yang Yang said.

Yang is an adjunct professor of kinesiology and community health at the Illinois university and a master of tai chi and qigong.

Larger studies are still needed to confirm the findings, he said, and to see whether the flu-antibody boost associated with tai chi/qigong is enough to prevent influenza.

According to tradition, Yang noted, tai chi and qigong "cultivate relaxation" and restore harmony to the body. But he said it's not yet clear exactly how, on a physiological level, the practices might enhance immunity. – (Amy Norton, Reuters Health)

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