Tai Chi training's effect on lower extremity muscle co-contraction during single- and dual-task gait: Cross-sectional and randomized trial studies

Peter M Wayne, Brian J Gow, Fengzhen Hou, Yan Ma, Jeffrey M Hausdorff, Justine Lo, Pamela M Rist, Chung-Kang Peng, Lewis A Lipsitz, Vera Novak, Brad Manor
PloS One 2021, 16 (1): e0242963

BACKGROUND: Tai Chi (TC) mind-body exercise has been shown to reduce falls and improve balance and gait, however, few studies have evaluated the role of lower extremity muscle activation patterns in the observed benefits of TC on mobility.

PURPOSE: To perform an exploratory analysis of the association between TC training and levels of lower extremity muscle co-contraction in healthy adults during walking under single-task (ST) and cognitive dual-task (DT) conditions.

METHODS: Surface electromyography of the anterior tibialis and lateral gastrocnemius muscles was recorded during 90 sec trials of overground ST (walking normally) and DT (walking with verbalized serial subtractions) walking. A mean co-contraction index (CCI), across all strides, was calculated based on the percentage of total muscle activity when antagonist muscles were simultaneously activated. A hybrid study design investigated long-term effects of TC via a cross-sectional comparison of 27 TC experts and 60 age-matched TC-naïve older adults. A longitudinal comparison assessed the shorter-term effects of TC; TC-naïve participants were randomly allocated to either 6 months of TC training or to usual care.

RESULTS: Across all participants at baseline, greater CCI was correlated with slower gait speed under DT (β(95% CI) = -26.1(-48.6, -3.7)) but not ST (β(95% CI) = -15.4(-38.2, 7.4)) walking. Linear models adjusting for age, gender, BMI and other factors that differed at baseline indicated that TC experts exhibited lower CCI compared to TC naives under DT, but not ST conditions (ST: mean difference (95% CI) = -7.1(-15.2, 0.97); DT: mean difference (95% CI) = -10.1(-18.1, -2.4)). No differences were observed in CCI for TC-naive adults randomly assigned to 6 months of TC vs. usual care.

CONCLUSION: Lower extremity muscle co-contraction may play a role in the observed benefit of longer-term TC training on gait and postural control. Longer-duration and adequately powered randomized trials are needed to evaluate the effect of TC on neuromuscular coordination and its impact on postural control.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: The randomized trial component of this study was registered at (NCT01340365).

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