A new study conducted on Chinese-American students revealed that Tai Chi is quite effective at battling depression.

Image credits: Barbara E. Carver.

Researchers set up a 12-week program of instruction and practice for the students, splitting all participants into three groups: the first one attended educational sessions which included discussions about stress, mental health, and depression. The second one attended the Tai Chi lessons, while the third was the passive “control” group, which did nothing but wait until the end of the program. All participants had been diagnosed with mild to moderate depression and did not take any drugs or medicine for the entire duration of the study. Following the 12-week program, they reported to follow-up assessments for 24 weeks.

Researchers found that even without any medicine, Tai Chi participants reported a significant reduction in depression symptoms and an overall improved mood.

“While some previous studies have suggested that tai chi may be useful in treating anxiety and depression, most have used it as a supplement to treatment for others medical conditions, rather than patients with depression,” explains Albert Yeung, MD, ScD, of the Depression Clinical and Research Program in the MGH Department of Psychiatry, lead and corresponding author of the report.

Aside from doing training together, participants were also asked to train at home three times a week and document their practice. After the observation period, participants in the control and talk group were also encouraged to join Tai Chi, though their development wasn’t thoroughly recorded.

Researchers say their results are particularly significant because Tai Chi is so popular, especially in some communities. While there was anecdotal evidence of the martial art helping against mental disorders, this is the first study to document it.

“Finding that tai chi can be effective is particularly significant because it is culturally accepted by this group of patients who tend to avoid conventional psychiatric treatment.”

For now, the study was exclusively aimed at Chinese-American participants. There’s no evident reason why the improvements would only apply to them (it’s the draw of Tai Chi that’s particular for this community, not the effects) but researchers decided to take it one step at a time — they started with Chinese-Americans and will then move on to other racial and ethnic groups. They didn’t focus on this particular group only because it was more likely for them to be familiar with Tai Chi and enjoy practicing it, but also because these people often don’t take advantage of modern medicine, especially when it comes to mental issues.

Now, the next step for them is to replicate their findings on bigger groups.

Journal Reference: Albert S. Yeung et al — A Pilot, Randomized Controlled Study of Tai Chi With Passive and Active Controls in the Treatment of Depressed Chinese Americans. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2017; 78 (5): e522 DOI: 10.4088/JCP.16m10772

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