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Research: Tai chi may be better at reducing blood pressure than aerobic exercise

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tai chi is a traditional form of Chinese martial arts, and it's known to increase flexibility and improve balance. New research suggests it may be better than more vigorous aerobic exercise in lowering blood pressure. Here's NPR's Maria Godoy.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Tai chi combines slow, gentle movements with mindfulness. It's often referred to as meditation in motion. Ruth Taylor-Piliae of the University of Arizona researches tai chi's many health benefits.

RUTH TAYLOR-PILIAE: Oh, my gosh - less depression, anxiety, less stress, better social support - just so many things.

GODOY: Now, a new study published in the journal JAMA Network Open finds that tai chi is even better at reducing blood pressure than exercises like jogging, cycling and brisk walking. The study looked at 342 people in China with prehypertension. That's when blood pressure is higher than normal, but it doesn't quite reach the level of high blood pressure. It's considered a warning sign that heart disease may be ahead. Roughly half of the people in the study did supervised aerobic exercise, while the other half were trained to practice tai chi. Both groups got hour long sessions four times a week. After 12 months, the tai chi group saw bigger drops in their blood pressure than the aerobic exercise group, and more people in the tai chi group saw their blood pressure readings fall into the normal range compared with the aerobics group. So what is it about tai chi that helps lower blood pressure? Taylor-Piliae says tai chi tends to elicit more of a response from the parasympathetic nervous system. That's the network of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger.

TAYLOR-PILIAE: Being in the moment, focusing on the tai chi, being able to relax, being aware of what you're doing kind of just helps calm a person down. And I think some of those things is what really helps with the blood pressure-lowering effect.

GODOY: She says that tai chi is appealing as a form of exercise because it's low impact and requires little space or equipment.

TAYLOR-PILIAE: I think the beauty of tai chi is that you don't have to have a special gym membership. You don't have to have special clothing. Once you learn the tai chi, you can do it any time, any place, anywhere. And it does kind of provide that calming, relaxing thing.

GODOY: But to reap the health benefits, you have to practice tai chi consistently.

Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.