Poi and Health


The first research study and clinical trial on the effects of poi on physical and cognitive function in healthy older adults.

Poi Clinical Trial

Poi for your Health




Introduction and Methods

As our lifespan lengthens and our aging population rapidly grows, quality of life in our latter years is of utmost concern. Simple and effective strategies for maintaining health in old age are urgently needed, and this study aims to discover if International Poi (a weight on the end of a cord swung in circular patterns around the body) may be one such strategy. It is the first study in the world to evaluate the effects of poi on physical and cognitive function in older adults.
An assessor-blind randomized controlled trial was undertaken with 79 healthy adults aged 60 years or older. Participants were randomly assigned to either the International Poi group (treatment) or Tai Chi group (control), and took part in 2 lessons a week for one month. Physical and cognitive function were measured before and after the lessons. Baseline measures were also made one month prior to lessons, and a follow up measurement one month after.



Participants were tested across 3 domains: physical (balance, bimanual coordination, blood pressure, heart rate, grip strength, lower body strength, manual dexterity, upper limb range of motion) cognitive (simple and complex attention, cognitive flexibility, motor speed, processing speed, psychomotor speed, reaction time, working memory, composite memory), and emotional (psychological well-being through the SF-36 questionnaire). These domains were measured a total of 4 times (twice before and twice after the poi or Tai Chi lessons). All tests were safe, non-invasive, and standard means of measuring physical, cognitive, and emotional function. To learn more about the tests, click on the images below.



Tai Chi

The Tai Chi lessons, taught by Bruno Rubini (a full time Auckland area instructor with over 30 years of Tai Chi Chuan experience) guided participants through three phases of movements in each lesson: Energizing Joints (strengthening the joints and tendons through a specific set of movements), Silk Reeling, Chen Style (basic warm up movements to connect the upper and lower body) and Tai Chi Qigong Shibashi (using movements from the Yang style Tai Chi Chaun, with an emphasis on synchronizing 18 movements with proper breathing techniques).


International Poi lessons were taught by Kate Riegle van West, the principal investigator for this study. The lessons focused on exploring and controlling the timing, plane, and direction of the poi with an awareness of ones body in relation to the poi. This was done through specific movements, such as the figure 8, butterfly, chasing the sun, flowers, and pendulums. Each lesson began with a warm up stretch, and concluded with a cool down stretch.



Word Clouds

Participants were asked “What 3 words best describe how you are feeling?” after each of their lessons. Below are their answers displayed in word clouds (the more times a word was said, the bigger it is!).

Selected quotes

Participants were also asked to explain any positive or negatives effects which seemed to caused by learning poi or Tai Chi.

Poi: view full report

Flexibility / looseness
“Doing poi seems to loosen up the stiffness in my back, shoulders, and neck”
“I think my flexibility in my wrist has improved”
“I am positive that my coordination has improved since starting”
“Poi is a gentle way at regaining some more coordination”
Focus / concentration
“Improved concentration”
“Focusing better”
Fun and enjoyment
“Very fun and enjoyable”
“I get a sense of enjoyment from swinging my poi”
Learning a new skill
“Learning something new at this stage – age ie – has been a very good experience for me”
“Feel pleased to tackle something new and learn new skills”

Tai Chi: view full report

“Always felt relaxed after it no matter what, even though stressors may have occurred before it”
“I feel really relaxed and pleasantly stimulated after each session”
“My balance is improving”
“I have definitely improved my ability to balance on one leg!”
Focus / concentration
“I concentrate better”
“Much calmer and more focused”
“Sleeping much better – I used to wake often during the night. Wake feeling fresher.”
“After 10 minutes Tai Chi before bed, I sleep better – getting off to sleep is easier”
Calm and peace
“I feel real calm and peace during and after each session”
“I definitely felt calmer after my tai chi lessons, I almost feel as though I have a different outlook on life”

Quantitative Data

After one month of training, both interventions (poi and Tai Chi) improved balance, hand grip strength, memory, and attention. The Tai Chi group also lowered their blood pressure. This shows that 1) the means of measuring were sensitive to the expected effects, because the findings are consistent with previous research on Tai Chi. 2) Poi improved right alongside Tai Chi, meaning poi is as good as an activity which is considered a gold standard of exercise for older adults. 3) The results cover the hallmarks of frailty: balance, cardiovascular function, strength, and memory. This is particularly exciting for thinking about poi as a tool for maintaining or improving quality of life in old age.

Some hard data for those that want it…
Both interventions benefited postural stability (Functional Reach Test P = 0.008, 4- Stage Balance Test P = 0.003), upper limb strength (hand grip P = 0001), memory (composite memory P = 0.007, visual memory P = 0.004), and simple attention (P = 0.038). Tai Chi also benefited systolic blood pressure (P = 0.026). P-values represent both groups, pre-test 2 (immediately prior to intervention) to post-test 1 (immediately after one month intervention), using RM ANOVA with group and age as factors. All measures were stable at baseline.


Frequently asked questions

Why do you think International Poi might have an effect on health?
Poi contains a unique set of characteristics which have been proven, individually, to have a positive impact health. Poi is a physical activity which draws upon the key components of fitness and is highly customizable. Physically active lifestyles have been proven to reduce risk factors and improve functioning and quality of life in the elderly (Daley, 2000). Poi is intrinsically playful, and play is proven to have a vital role in keeping the mind and body young by presenting novel situations which foster cognitive innovation, adaptability, and flexibility; which in turn improves reflexes, memory, processing speeds, etc. (Brown, 2009). Poi is rhythmic, and active music therapy has a multitude of physical, mental, and emotional benefits (Drake, 2010). The rhythmic nature of poi can potentially tap into the same benefits as rhythmic, active, music therapy such as drumming. And activities such as juggling (Boyke, 2008) and Tai Chi (“The Health Benefits”, 2008), which share many characteristics with poi (e.g. ambidexterity, rhythm, and meditative movement) are proven to have a positive effect on maintaining both physical and cognitive ability in older adults.

Why did you choose Tai Chi for the control group?
Seeing as there is no known research on poi and health, we cannot compare a poi treatment group to a poi control group. Thus, I wanted to compare a poi treatment group to a control group which was participating in an activity closely related to poi, which also: 1) has both physical and cognitive dimensions, 2) is appropriate for older adults, and 3) has a substantial amount of scientific research proving its efficacy. Many activities were considered (such as juggling, ballroom dancing, and yoga) but ultimately Tai Chi was the best fit based on the methodology above.

I thought poi was Maori…why aren’t you using Maori poi in your study?
The focus of my research is to determine if the fundamental act of a weight orbiting on the end of a string has an impact on health. To do that, I believe it’s important to peal away as many layers as possible and start with the very basics: swinging a weight on a cord in circles. One of the things that make Maori poi unique is their inextricable link to Maori culture. I believe this depth is extremely valuable (and it’s the reason I moved to New Zealand to do the research!), and I would like to conduct future research on Maori poi. But for the first study, International poi is a better fit for my research question and it is also where my own expertise lies. If you would like to learn more about the different styles of poi, feel free to check out my about page.

Why did you choose a population of healthy older adults?
As the young-old balance shifts throughout the world, so does the prevalence of chronic disease, making elderly health and well-being an extremely important area of interest. I could have chosen many other populations to work with (people recovering from stroke, people with dementia), and I would like to conduct research on other populations in the future, but healthy older adults is a very relevant and timely place to start with the boom in our aging population. I am particularly interested if International Poi can contribute to prolonging quality of life and possibly delaying the onset of diseases that strike in old age.


Boyke J., Driemeyer J., Gaser C., Büchel C., and May A. (2008). Training-induced Brain Structure Changes in the Elderly. Journal of Neuroscience. 28. Doi: 7031-7035. 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0742-08.2008


Brown, S. (2009). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Penguin Group.


Daley, M. & Spinks, W. (2000). Exercise, Mobility and Ageing. Sports Medicine. 29, 1-12.


Drake, M. (2010). The Therapeutic Effects of Drumming. Retrieved from: http://shamanicdrumming.com/drumtherapy.html


“The Health Benefits of Tai Chi” (2014). Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/May/The-health-benefits-of-tai-chi>.