Nursing Professor Explores Tai Chi for Stroke Survivors

Nursing Professor Explores Tai Chi for Stroke Survivors

By Janelle DrumwrightUA College of Nursing
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Taylor-Piliae presented her research at the Frontiers in Biomedical Research Poster Forum on the Arizona Health Sciences Center campus on Oct. 30.
Taylor-Piliae presented her research at the Frontiers in Biomedical Research Poster Forum on the Arizona Health Sciences Center campus on Oct. 30.
An avid cyclist and yoga enthusiast, Taylor-Piliae practices what she preaches in her research.
An avid cyclist and yoga enthusiast, Taylor-Piliae practices what she preaches in her research.

From a very young age, Ruth Taylor-Piliae knew she wanted to be a nurse.

"My first memory of wanting to be a nurse was when I was in second grade," she said. "When I chose my lunchbox for school, I chose the nursing one. It had the traditional nursing uniform and the hat and everything."

Today, Taylor-Piliae is an associate professor with tenure at the UA College of Nursing. As a faculty member, she is helping educate the next generation of nurse leaders, and as a cardiovascular nurse scientist, she is conducting pioneering research in an area that is near and dear to her heart.

"When I was 16, my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack," Taylor-Piliae said. "Around that time, some of the early results came out from the Framingham Heart Study, which was a huge, epidemiological study that looked at what the risk factors were for developing heart disease. I remember hearing about it in my classes, things that you could do to prevent heart disease – like exercise. A contributor to my grandfather’s death was that he smoked."

In this vein, Taylor-Piliae's program of research is focused on physical activity interventions for people with heart disease or who have suffered a stroke.

Currently, she is examining the impact of Tai Chi exercise on the number of falls experienced by adult stroke survivors. In February, she presented the early results of her study at the American Stroke Association International Stroke Conference. Compared to survivors receiving usual care or participating in a national fitness program for Medicare-eligible adults called SilverSneakers, those practicing in Tai Chi had the fewest falls.

"Learning how to find and sustain your balance after a stroke is a challenge," said Taylor-Piliae. "Stroke survivors experience seven times more falls each year than healthy adults. These falls can cause fractures, decreased mobility and increased fear of falling that can result in social isolation or reduce independence. Tai Chi is effective in improving both static and dynamic body balance, which is important to preventing falls. This form of exercise also is relatively inexpensive and readily available in most U.S. cities."

Taylor-Piliae's decision to examine Tai Chi was a result of the 15 years she spent working as a critical care nurse in Hong Kong.

"In critical care, I worked mainly with cardiac and stroke patients," said Taylor-Piliae. "After their event, they'd have rehabilitation in what I call 'Westernized gyms,' where they're on treadmills and doing supervised exercise. However, their health-care coverage for rehabilitation was for a limited amount of time. Once that time was up, they had nowhere to go. At the time, in order to work out at a private gym you had to be quite wealthy and the majority of people who needed those services were older adults on pensions. But when I walked around the parks in Hong Kong, I'd see lots of people doing Tai Chi."

Tai Chi is a martial art dating back to ancient China. It includes physical movements, mental concentration and relaxed breathing.

"When I started my doctoral studies, I started taking Tai Chi classes," Taylor-Piliae said. "It looked simple, but I was surprised by how hard it could actually be. It's the opposite of what we think in Western exercise, where you have to go harder or faster to increase the benefit. With Tai Chi, going slower and lowering your stance actually makes it harder."

When it comes to exercise, Taylor-Piliae practices what she preaches. In addition to practicing Tai Chi three days a week, she also is an avid cyclist and yoga enthusiast. She competes regularly in cycling events and completed her first duathlon (run, bike, run) on Oct. 26. Her performance earned her a spot on Team USA for the 2014 ITU Sprint Duathlon World Championships, set to take place May 31-June 1, 2014, in Pontevedra, Spain.

"When I first started cycling, it was a matter of being a poor college student and needing transportation back and forth from campus to home," Taylor-Piliae said. "But once I did have a car, I began to ride for pleasure. Competing in these events is a great way for me to help promote physical activity and exercise out in the community, and I'm really excited to represent Team USA next spring."

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