June 18 (UPI) -- Tai chi may reduce depression, anxiety and stress, as well as improve sleep, in people who have had a stroke, a small study presented Friday during the European Society of Cardiology's EuroHeartCare congress found.

After eight weeks of tai chi, people recovering after a stroke had fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress compared with when they started the ancient discipline, the researchers said.

Participants also slept more soundly and spent less time awake during the night.

"Tai chi practice allows the individual to quiet the mind by dwelling in the present and setting aside unnecessary negative emotions, such as depression," study co-author Ruth Taylor-Piliae said in a press release.

"Mind-body interventions are commonly used among adults to lessen depressive symptoms," said Taylor-Piliae, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Arizona in Tuscon.

About one-third of stroke survivors suffer from depression and many also frequently report anxiety, stress and poor sleep, according to the American Heart Association.

Tai chi is a martial arts discipline that focuses on releasing tension in the body, increasing awareness and efficiency of breathing and promoting overall relaxation of body and mind.

The approach also incorporates aspects of mindfulness, a mental state in which the mind remains in the present moment.

For this study, the researchers evaluated the effectiveness of a tai chi-based regimen in 11 stroke survivors who reported experiencing depression symptoms.

Study participants had an average age of 70 and 55% were men, the researchers said.

All participants attended tai chi classes three times per week for a total of eight weeks, with each class including a 10-minute warm-up period, 40-minutes of tai chi exercise and a 10-minute cool-down period.

Participants were gradually taught 24 basic movements from the Wu style of tai chi, at an average of two new movements per week.

Symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress were assessed using questionnaires and sleep was assessed during night-time using a triaxial accelerometer, which detects body movement.

The researchers also collected blood samples at the beginning of the study and at the end of the eight-week period to test for signs of oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which have been linked with post-stroke depression.

Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals, or oxygen-containing molecules, and antioxidants in the body, and it can contribute to the development of a number of chronic health conditions, the researchers said.

After eight weeks of tai chi, participants had evidence of reduced oxidative stress in the blood, but no significant changes in any of the markers of inflammation.

"I was surprised and pleased with the improvements we observed in these self-reported symptoms and in sleep with just an eight-week intervention," Taylor-Piliae said.

However, "more research is needed before recommendations can be made about tai chi for people who have had a stroke. Our ultimate goal is to see whether tai chi lowers depressive symptoms in stroke survivors and also improves biochemical markers associated with depression," she said.

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