According to recent research the ancient Chinese martial art of Tai chi offers benefits beyond improving fitness and balance for older adults.
Tai chi is recognised as being a good low-impact exercise for older people but researchers at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) say the slow, graceful movements of Tai chi may help older adults avoid the painful skin condition shingles.
The researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that older people who practised Tai chi had a better immune response against the virus that causes shingles compared to those who only received health education.
Shingles is a painful skin rash that can appear in people who have had chickenpox.
The chickenpox virus can remain dormant in the body and resurface as shingles many years later usually starting with pain and itching on the skin that later turns into an irritating rash.
Tai chi has become increasingly popular in the West and though it remains unclear how the art affects the immune system health experts are encouraged by the positive results and say the research supports the belief that older people need to maintain healthy behaviour.
As many as 1 million Americans are afflicted with shingles every year which occurs most commonly in people 50 years old and older.
The UCLA research involved 112 healthy adults, ages 59 to 86, who had previously had chickenpox earlier in life and were therefore already immune to the disease.
Half of the group attended Tai chi classes three times a week for three months while the others attended health education classes where they were taught good diet habits and stress management.
Both groups were then vaccinated with VARIVAX, the chickenpox vaccine and the researchers took periodic blood tests before and after vaccination to determine their level of immunity against shingles.
Six months down the line the Tai chi group had nearly twice the level of immunity against shingles than the education group.
The researchers found that those who performed Tai chi before the vaccination had an immune response that was similar to what a vaccine could expect to produce in a younger population.
Tai chi combined with the vaccine showed a 40 percent increase in immunity than the vaccine alone.
In addition, the Tai chi group reported significant improvements in physical functioning, bodily pain, vitality and mental health and both groups showed significant declines in the severity of depressive symptoms.
Experts in Tai chi say they are not surprised by the results and say the meditation aspect of the exercise appeals to older people who enjoy the mind power required as against mere muscle power.
The study is the first rigorous clinical trial to suggest that a behavioral intervention, alone or in combination with a vaccine, can help protect older adults from VZV, which causes both chickenpox and shingles.
The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), both components of NIH.
NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, says one in five people who have had chickenpox will get shingles later in life, usually after age 50, and the risk increases as people get older.
The study is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.