Exercise has been shown to help manage many MS symptoms. Some people with MS practice adaptive tai chi — a form of the gentle Chinese martial art — adapted for people with physical disabilities. In studies of people with MS, tai chi has been found to improve balance and overall quality of life.
Tai chi, also known as tai chi chuan, is a Chinese martial art involving slow, deliberate movements. This form of exercise is gentler than most forms of yoga. The purpose of tai chi is to relieve stress, improve focus and muscle tone, and develop balance between the mind and body (mindfulness). Tai chi is usually performed as a set of gentle, fluid exercises and stretches alongside deep breathing. These movements, also called postures, flow into each other to keep the body in continuous motion.
Adaptive tai chi, in particular, is a type of adaptive sport, or a physical activity that has been modified to allow people with physical disabilities to participate. Although some adaptive sports may be competitive, tai chi is a characteristically noncompetitive practice that allows you to set your own pace.
For example, wheelchair tai chi chuan (WTCC) combines the flowing movements of tai chi with the rolling and turning motions of a wheelchair. According to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, WTCC may have physical and emotional benefits, including having a positive impact on depression — one of the most common symptoms of MS.
Doctors used to advise against exercise for people with multiple sclerosis. Today, experts understand that exercise can have tremendous wellness benefits for people with MS and can serve as a complementary treatment option alongside medication for multiple sclerosis. Several studies have examined the potential physical and mental health benefits of tai chi for people with MS.
A clinical trial on 32 participants with MS evaluated the impacts of two 90-minute tai chi sessions each week over six months. Compared to controls, the tai chi group experienced improved life satisfaction and showed significant, consistent improvements in balance, coordination, and depression.
A review of research on tai chi for people with MS similarly found that tai chi was effective in improving quality of life and functional balance. A small number of studies also reported that participants experienced improved flexibility, gait (walk), leg strength, and decreased pain. However, the researchers noted that more robust research still needs to be done. As always, you should talk to your health care provider before beginning any new exercise program, including tai chi.
Many MyMSTeam members have discussed trying different exercises and routines. Some members find that the gentle, flowing movements of tai chi allow them to exercise when other activities feel impossible. As one MyMSTeam member wrote, tai chi is “way better than yoga” for them.
One member shared the particular benefits they experienced after practicing tai chi: “Tai chi class was challenging, but I made it through. My legs are really feeling it now, but the good, slow movements of tai chi are helping my balance and my overall well-being!” Another member wrote that tai chi is “very good for coordination, and very relaxing,” while another stated, “sometimes, tai chi is just the answer.”
One member whose office has been offering virtual tai chi classes wrote, “I am slowly getting further into the tai chi training … The virtual training is better than in-person for me right now because it is less embarrassing when I need to stop and rest! Plus, we record it, so I can practice whenever I want.”
Although some members swear by their tai chi practice, others find that their experience with tai chi isn’t as beneficial as they’d hoped. As one member shared, “I struggle, of course, just to stay vertical. As you might have guessed, I also have to rest a couple of times during the 45-minute session … Tai chi thoroughly exhausts me.”
Every person with MS is different. Whether tai chi is right for you depends on many factors, including your specific MS symptoms, your mobility, your type of MS, and your treatment plan. Your doctor is your best resource for determining whether a particular exercise will be safe and beneficial for your well-being. They may refer you to a physical therapist or fitness professional experienced in working with people with MS who can help determine whether a tai chi class is right for you.
Finding an exercise routine that works for you can be a challenge. Sometimes, you need insights from others who understand. MyMSTeam is the social network designed to connect those with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. Here, members ask and answer questions, offer advice and support, and share their stories of life with MS.
Have you tried tai chi for MS? What did you think of the practice? Members would love to hear from you. Share your experience in the comments below or by posting on MyMSTeam.