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LSU Tai Chi has positive effects on Parkinson's research

Lagniappe Sports

POSTED: Friday, January 11, 2013 - 6:30am

UPDATED: Friday, January 11, 2013 - 12:34pm

A large room at the University United Methodist Church fills with gentle music as Tai Chi instructor Zhujun Pan leads a group of older adults in exercises. They walk to the front of the room slowly and then walk carefully backwards. They repeat this, this time kicking up their feet. Beginning at the top of the thigh, they pat down the front of their legs and up the back of their legs.

"Relax your muscles," said Pan. "Always remember to take breaks during the day to shake your arms and legs. You don't want them to tighten up."

For an hour three days a week, Pan teaches a simplified version of Tai Chi, a type of Chinese martial art, to improve participants' movements as part of the LSU Tai Chi program. Participants include people with peripheral neuropathy and Parkinson's disease, disorders known to affect balance and coordination, making it difficult for them to walk.

"I have peripheral neuropathy, which means I don't get sensory signals from my feet," said former LSU chancellor Paul Murrill. He has been in the class for about a year.

"The nerves won't transmit the signals, so I have balance problems," Murrill continued. "I rely very much on vision for balance as opposed to sensing with my feet. The program has helped my balance, helped my coordination, and helped my flexibility. And it's quite pleasant. It's a winner all the way around. I enjoy it."

Launched in 2004, the program began as part of the School of Kinesiology's research on peripheral neuropathy. In 2009, the research expanded to include how participation in Tai Chi may affect people with Parkinson's disease.

The research aspect of the program focused on the effects of participation in Tai Chi on fine and gross motor skills.

"Fine motor skills are precise movements that we do with our hands or mouth, whereas gross motor skills involve larger body movements such as walking or moving around in the kitchen," said School of Kinesiology Associate Professor Jan Hondzinski, the current program director.

The researchers collected functional performance data on new participants to serve as a starting point from which progress could be measured. The goal was to acquire long term results from the effects of Tai Chi.

"Our long term data show that participants with Parkinson's achieved greater strength in their legs, had better endurance, had better mobility and maintained or improved their balance," said Hondzinski. "The movement time and peak speed for writing increased as well. This is really important because these people are known for bradykinesia, which is slow movement. If you think about Tai Chi, you don't think about it as being an upper-body exercise, yet we saw some upper body improvements in writing."

Although Hondzinski said they have finished collecting short-term and long-term data on the participants, the class continues because it meets a need of the community, provides a subject pool to assist with their research on other projects, and gives undergraduate and graduate students interested in research direct observations of neurological deficits.

"I really enjoy teaching the class," said Pan. "When I see the patients at the beginning, I feel they are not very active. After the exercise and after we get to know each other and they feel very comfortable in the class, they want to do the exercise; they want to improve their motor control."

Charles Raborn, a retired Baton Rouge pediatrician, takes the class three times a week.

"I think we're all in the same boat here, trying to keep movement and keep mobile," said Raborn. "There is a sense of camaraderie. I also think the appointed time keeps you motivated to get there."

The program has even received recommendations from local doctors.

"There is a potential collaboration with Pennington to work with this group in the future," said Hondzinski. "Such a collaboration could be used to advance the program; that is our next goal."

The School of Kinesiology is one of six schools realigned to form the new LSU College of Human Sciences & Education, joined by the School of Education, the School of Human Resource Education & Workforce Development, the School of Library & Information Science, the School of Social Work and the University Laboratory School.

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