NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – In a randomized study, researchers found that patients with chronic stroke can improve their standing balance, perhaps reducing their risk of falls, by learning a simplified form of the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi, with the beneficial effects on balance lasting beyond the training period.

In a previous study, Dr. Christina W. Y. Hui-Chan of the University of Illinois at Chicago and colleagues saw improvement in standing balance among a group of healthy elderly individuals following 4 weeks of intensive Tai Chi practice.

In their latest study, the team randomized 136 patients more than 6 months following stroke to 12 weeks of Tai Chi, consisting of an hour-long weekly small-group class led by a physical therapist, supplemented by 3 hours of self-practice at home, or to a control group that performed general breathing, stretching and other exercises involving sitting, walking, memorizing and reasoning.

They used a simplified “short-form” of Tai Chi that had been shown to be beneficial in arthritis patients consisting of 12 forms that require whole-body movements to be performed in a continuous sequence. Tests of balance were administered at baseline, 6 weeks (mid-program), 12 weeks (end-program) and 18 weeks (follow-up).

In an Online First report issued by the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, Dr. Hui-Chan and colleagues report that the Tai Chi group outperformed the control exercise group in several balance tests — such as their ability to maintain balance while shifting weight, leaning in different directions, and standing on moving surfaces to simulate a crowded bus.

Improvement in “the ability to shift your weight is very important because all reaching tasks require it,” Dr. Hui-Chan noted in a university-issued statement.

Improvement in standing balance was seen after only 6 weeks of Tai Chi and “despite a reduction in practice time after the training ended, subjects in the Tai Chi group maintained their gains,” the investigators also note.

Based on the results, the study team suggests that short-form Tai Chi might be applied in community rehabilitation programs for patients who have adequate sensorimotor function and learning ability to safely participate.

“Once the stroke survivors have mastered the Tai Chi forms, they can continue to practice Tai Chi any time, anywhere without being dependent on the guidance or supervision of a health care professional,” they note.

Neurorehabil Neural Repair 2009.