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 1:
"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:
“…Exercise or other motor enrichment methods might delay the onset of parkinsonian symptoms or slow the degenerative process, but only when there are no substantial breaks in motor activity.” (1763). — Motor Enrichment and the Induction of Plasticity Before or After Brain Injury (Kleim et al, 2004)
“Our findings indicate that exercise reduces the behavioral impairments elicited by the dopaminergic neurotoxins as well as the loss of DA neurons.” — Triggering endogenous neuroprotective processes through exercise in models of dopamine deficiency (Zigmond et al, 2009)
“What is clear is that exercise can influence the multiple levels of support necessary for maintaining optimal neuronal function, which is unique among proposed interventions for aging.” (Anderson et al, 2010)
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):
Something is better than nothing. There is no perfect program that will work for everyone. But don't delay starting to do something. Begin with a walk. Or dance to some music. Try yoga, tai chi, cycling (in a gym). There are fitness classes designed specifically to help with the aging process and the more common conditions which older adults face; look for those classes at your local community centre.
Find a physiotherapist who can design a program for you. Ask for a referral or consult an online resource for a physical therapist who specializes in neurological disorders — or who is board certified as a clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy — or who typically works with people with Parkinson's in their day-to-day practice. (Ellis, 2010)
Try exercising with a group. Research shows that people stick with exercise when there is encouragement and an expectation for you to show up.
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)
Exercise several times per week at an intensity that is high enough to be physically challenging. Research shows that it’s not the exercise, but the level of the intensity of the exercise, that may be the most beneficial.
Do three major types of exercise. They are:
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.
- Start now. The sooner after diagnosis you begin exercising, the greater your physical reserve and self-motivation are likely to be. Don’t wait for the disease to progress further or for problems to emerge. “…It is so encouraging to learn ... that exercise training can effectively reverse certain behavioral deficits, like impaired movement, imbalance and inconsistent gait pattern that are associated with the Parkinsonian syndrome in spite of the existing severe loss.” — Restorative effect of endurance exercise on behavioral deficits in the chronic mouse model of Parkinson’s disease with severe neurodegeneration (Pathakos, Kurz & Lau, 2009)
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:
- Exercise and Allergies
- Exercise and Arthritis
- Exercise and Asthma
- Exercise and Balance
- Exercise and Cancer
- Exercise and Chronic Pain
- Exercise and Circulation
- Exercise and COPD
- Exercise and Dementia
- Exercise and Depression
- Exercise and Diabetes
- Exercise and Heart Disease
- Exercise and Hypertension
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
- Exercise and Mood
- Exercise and Osteoporosis
- Exercise and Our Brain
- Exercise and Pain vs. Burn: Will it ever stop hurting?
- Exercise and Sleep
- Exercise and Stroke
- Exercise and Viruses: Exercise Immunology
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.