Exercise and Parkinson's Disease

Editor's Note: When you see these three dots surrounded by a gray rectangle — 1 — you can click on it to get further information about the topic. Click a second time, and the message goes away.

This article was edited and updated on December 12, 2021.

What is Parkinson's Disease?

Parkinson's is a progressive disease of the nervous system marked by tremor, muscular rigidity, and slow, imprecise movement, chiefly affecting middle-aged and elderly people. It is associated with degeneration of the basal ganglia of the brain and a deficiency of the neurotransmitter called dopamine.

In many ways, Parkinson's is still a mystery. Here is some of what we know from the Parkinson's Disease Foundation 2:

"To date, despite decades of intensive study, the causes of Parkinson’s remain unknown. Many experts think that the disease is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, which may vary from person to person.

"In some people, genetic factors may play a role; in others, illness, an environmental toxin or other event may contribute. Scientists have identified aging as an important risk factor; there is a two to four percent risk for Parkinson’s among people over age 60, compared with one to two percent in the general population.

"The chemical or genetic trigger that starts the cell death process in dopamine neurons is the subject of intense scientific study. Many believe that by understanding the sequence of events that leads to the loss of dopamine cells, scientists will be able to develop treatments to stop or reverse the disease."

Can Exercise Help?

The simple, short answer is yes. The more complex answer is "possibly." It all depends on the individual and what efforts they wish to make.

Research shows that exercise can slow many aspects of the physical decline of Parkinson's and new research also suggests that exercise may even be neuroprotective — that is, slow the progression of the disease in the brain.

Three studies improve our understanding of exercise and its benefits for those who may get or already have Parkinson's Disease:

What activities may help?

Here is a list of some of the things you can do (Thanks to the Davis Phinney Foundation for the ideas):

People with Parkinson’s disease who participated in 20 tango lessons experienced "significant improvements in mobility, social support and health related quality of life" – from Health-related quality of life and alternative forms of exercise in Parkinson disease (Hackney & Earhart, 2009)

“Maintaining a regular schedule of dancing into old age can preserve cognitive, motor and perceptual abilities and prevent them from degradation…beyond its ability to facilitate balance and posture, dance is a prime candidate for the preservation of everyday life competence of elderly individuals” (Kattenstroth et al, 2010)

Cardiovascular exercise for 30 minutes, two or three times per week;

Strength or resistance training for 30 minutes, two or three times per week; and,

Stretching or flexibility exercises daily.

A diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease is not a "good news" story, but as with any disease or physical condition, it does not have to mean stepping away from everything you do in life. Instead, it presents you with a challenge. Exercising is something we all need to do — with Parkinson's Disease, it appears that exercising becomes even more important.

This article is part of a series about various health conditions and the benefits of exercise. The other articles are:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

★ ★ ★

  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎

  2. You can find the Parkinson's Disease Foundation website here↩︎