People with Parkinson's disease often suffer from shaking limbs and stiff muscles, which makes moving increasingly difficult.

Now scientists have found practising an ancient Chinese martial art could help both their balance and ability to walk.

A team from the Oregon Research Institute assigned nearly 200 patients twice weekly sessions of 60 minutes each in either tai chi, resistance-training or stretching.

Improvement: Tai chi helped sufferers with balance and walking (posed picture)

Improvement: Tai chi helped sufferers with balance and walking (posed picture)

Those who did the gentle martial art outperformed the stretching and resistance-training groups in tests of balance and length of stride when walking.

Those in the tai chi group also experienced fewer falls than the stretchers, and just as many falls as the resistance-trainers.

'These results are clinically significant because they suggest that tai chi, a low-to-moderate impact exercise, may be used, as an add-on to current physical therapies, to address some of the key clinical problems in Parkinson's disease' said lead author Fuzhong Li.

'The improvements in the balance and gait measures that we demonstrated highlight the potential of tai chi-based movements in rehabilitating patients with these types of problems.'

Tai chi entails regular practice of deep breathing and relaxation techniques to calm the mind, combined with slow and gentle movements.

It is based on tenets in Confucian and Buddhist philosophies that there are two opposing life forces, yin and yang, which govern health.

Ill health results from an imbalance in these forces, but it can be corrected by tai chi by improving the flow of internal energy through the whole body, according to these beliefs.

Last year, scientists from Hong Kong Polytechnic University found the practice helped elderly patients to avoid dangerous falls.

Parkinson's is a progressive motor-system disorder that affects more than 120,000 people in the UK and around one million in the U.S.

Symptoms usually appear in people over the age of 50 and include body trembling, stiffness and loss of balance. Drugs and surgery are two possible treatments however there is no known cure.