March 29, 2007 -- Tai chi, a traditional Chinese martial art, may give older adults' immune system a boost.
That news comes from experts at UCLA and the University of California, San Diego.
They included Michael Irwin, MD, who is the Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and the co-director of UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.
Irwin's team studied 112 healthy adults aged 59-86 (average age: 70) for about six months.
First, the researchers split participants into two groups.
One group took tai chi classes three times a week for 16 weeks. Each class lasted 40 minutes and included a set of 20 tai chi exercises.
The other group took a health education class -- with no tai chi lessons -- for the same amount of time.
After the 16-week programs ended, the researchers gave all participants a single shot of Varivax, a vaccine that targets the varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox and shingles.
Participants had already had chickenpox earlier in life. The vaccine just served as a way to test their immune systems.
Over the next nine weeks, participants periodically had their blood tested to check for antibodies against the virus.
Those who had taken the tai chi classes mounted a stronger immune system response to the vaccine than those in the health education class.
By the end of the 25-week study, the tai chi students' immune system response was nearly twice that of the health education students.
"These are exciting findings," Irwin says in a UCLA news release. He notes that age often dims the immune system response to vaccines.
The study "suggests that tai chi is an approach that might complement and augment the efficacy of other vaccines," such as the influenza vaccine, Irwin says.
Tai chi isn't just about working your muscles. Its slow, graceful movements also have a meditative aspect. It's not clear which aspects of tai chi were most helpful to participants in the study.
The report appears in the April edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.