For people who have a heart attack, chances are high that if they don’t do much to change their lifestyle and health habits, they will have another one—possibly even a fatal one—in a few years.
But the dietary and exercise changes that doctors recommend are often too intimidating and frightening for patients. Most heart rehabilitation programs include regular treadmill sessions several times a week at a hospital or heart facility, but nearly two-thirds of heart attack patients don’t participate in these programs. For people who are overweight or obese and are not in the habit of exercising, such regimens are off-putting and stressful, since they are afraid that the exercise will trigger another heart attack.
The results suggest that for people who don’t do cardiac rehab, tai chi may be a way to entice them to start exercising in a gentle, less intimidating way. It may also act as a gateway to other types of more traditional and intensive exercise that have been shown to improve fitness and potentially lower risk of having further heart attacks. “Tai chi is an interesting, promising exercise option,” says Salmoriago-Blotcher. “I think based on what we found, it’s a reasonable and safe step to offer tai chi within cardiac rehab. If someone says they are afraid of exercising, we could ask if they are interested in doing tai chi.”
Once people start to move more using tai chi, she says, doctors can revisit the possibility of switching them to a more intensive traditional cardiac rehab program.
The benefits of offering tai chi to the people who aren’t getting cardiac rehab now could be enormous, since it’s a gentle way to become physically active. Unlike other forms of exercise, including working out on a treadmill and even yoga, tai chi is non-striving, says Salmoriago-Blotcher, meaning there is no set goal or pose that needs to be reached: just moving for the sake of moving. By its nature, people who practice tai chi “are not going anywhere, and not wanting to achieve [physical goals],” she says. “We tell people to just do it without thinking about goals. They should just enjoy the movement and the practice.”
Tai chi is also customizable. For people who can’t arrange transportation to come to regular rehab sessions at a hospital, tai chi can also be easily done at home without equipment, which might also encourage more people to exercise. It can also be adjusted to be more or less strenuous, depending on how it’s practiced. Salmoriago-Blotcher is hoping to study tai chi further in heart attack survivors by upping the intensity and seeing, through heart rate monitors, if that actually helps improve their physical fitness. If it does, then tai chi might be on its way to being an alternative to the treadmill as a way to improve heart health.