There are countless health benefits to consistent physical activity or exercise. Unfortunately, people living with chronic lung disease can find working out difficult, or, if not done with guidance from your healthcare provider, even dangerous.  

Luckily, there are safe exercise options that people living with a chronic lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or lung cancer should consider. One that has been found to have health benefits is tai chi. Rooted in Asian martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine, tai chi focuses on slow, gentle, repetitive movements. This allows you to focus on integrating your breath, having bodily awareness and increasing mental focus through visualization.

“I became interested in teaching tai chi classes through my work with seniors as a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor,” said Kendra Lair. “I work with many adults who are living with chronic diseases, such as COPD. We had a couple of requests to start a tai chi class, so I went to get certified. It has become one of my favorite classes to teach. I love the slow flow through the different movements.”  

Proven physical benefits of Tai Chi

Tai chi is an easy, low-intensity exercise that focuses on breathing along with slow motions and poses. This series of movements flow together in a constant motion that is light on the joints and causes minimal muscle stress. It can even be done seated.   Many refer to the practice as "meditation in motion." It can be performed individually but is more effective when an instructor is by your side, observing your moves. If you use oxygen or inhalers, keep them nearby during your practice and use them as indicated by your healthcare provider.

“Some of the benefits from tai chi include improvements in strength, flexibility, balance, and aerobic conditioning. It also is ideal for people with different fitness levels,” Kendra said. Research supports the positive impact tai chi can have on health. Particularly for patients with COPD, a 2021 review of 23 studies by The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health concluded that tai chi may help improve lung function, and in turn exercise capacity and quality of life.

Retraining the Mind

In addition to the physical toll that chronic disease can have on your body, many people also struggle with stress, anxiety and depression. It is important to discuss these challenges with your healthcare provider, and together come up with a plan that might include incorporating tai chi. Identifying, understanding and treating any mental health issues is very important for people living with a chronic lung disease because, if they aren’t dealt with, these feelings can lead to more severe symptoms, more hospitalizations and increased treatment need.

“The most typical feedback that I get from people who take my class is that they just feel better and more relaxed. I have heard many people say that tai chi is a wonderful way to relieve any anxiety that they experience throughout the day. Some even tell me that they are practicing their tai chi breathing on the way to a doctor’s appointments that they may be nervous about,” Kendra explained.  

It is important to get clearance from your healthcare provider before attempting any kind of exercise, including tai chi. You can use this one-page worksheet to help guide a conversation with your healthcare provider about increasing your physical activity. If you do participate in a class, make sure the teacher is fully qualified and they understand your respiratory needs. 

Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning an exercise routine.

Learn more ways to stay physically active at Lung.org/copd.

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