Does exercise really help Parkinson’s Symptoms?
Dan F., Santa Monica
Thank you for asking this question. It is one I often hear. Before giving my answer, I want to emphasis the importance of checking with your own physician for answers to any medical questions and to make sure exercise is appropriate for you.
The answer to the very important question: does exercise really help with the symptoms of Parkinson’s is a resounding yes. Let’s take a closer look at the issues and research that validate the answer.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
Symptoms vary from patient to patient, but typically include the slowing down of muscle activity (referred to as bradykinesia), overall muscle rigidity, freezing of the muscles and muscle function, decline in balance, and tremors. Involuntary movements or what is called dyskinesias can also occur and is the most common symptom people associate with Parkinson’s disease.
Other symptoms include postural instability, a decline in facial expression, shuffling walk or gait, a decline in voice strength, and smaller handwriting. Bladder and bowl function can be impacted, and there can be a loss of cognitive function.
How exercise helps:
First, let’s look at the roles of exercise. The first role is to control symptoms, and the second is to slow the progression of the disease. During recen years, studies have provided compelling evidence that exercise improves many of common symptoms, including loss of strength, tremors, problems with balance and flexibility.
One of the key reasons exercise helps is that our brains depend on neuroplasticity. When we do activities like exercise, we are stimulating our brains to generate new nerve pathways. These new pathways help supplement what the neurological disorder may have taken away. This is a phenomenon clearly evident in other conditions such as stroke.
What the research shows
There has been research in recent years that shows exercise has a protective effect on those with Parkinson’s. This may happen in a couple of ways.
First, exercise seems to provide a protection against toxins that cause nerve damage. Additionally, with exercise there seems to be an increase in neurochemicals that facilitate nerve growth and improve nerve strength and stability.
This is exciting news, as it is believed that symptoms of Parkinson’s disease do not manifest until one loses 40 to 60 percent of their nerve function. Perhaps with exercise, those at risk will not have symptoms until later in life or perhaps never at all.
A University of Maryland research study, published in the Archives of Neurology, proved to quite positive. Following 67 patients with Parkinson’s during three exercise regimens, the first group performed high-intensity treadmill exercise (30 minutes @ 70% to 80% of heart rate reserve), the second group performed lower-intensity treadmill (50 minutes @ 40% to 50% of heart rate reserve). The third group just did resistance and stretching exercises -3 times each week over a 3 month period.
The study found that each of the different types of exercise improved functioning. Strengthening exercises were even shown to improve walking abilities.
It was very encouraging to find that even the less intense aerobic exercises significantly improved walking abilities. In the past, it was believed that only the high intensity aerobic exercises would improve walking, and that for strength to improve, resistance exercise were needed.
The benefits of exercise for PWP are now research proven and validated. All of the talented Movement Disorder Neurologists whom I know recommend maintaining some form of an exercise program to supplement the meds and provide a proactive strategy for their patients to fight the disease