New research suggests simple exercise may provide hope for the one million people who suffer from Parkinson’s Disease (PD). This remedy may provide even greater benefits to those who have been, or will be, diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s. Exercise may provide relief for the increasingly debilitating symptoms—such as lack of mobility, tremors, stiffness, speech impairment and mood disorders—and even slow the progression of the disease itself.
The right plan
A comprehensive study on Parkinson’s, known as the Quality Improvement Initiative (QII), was conducted by the National Parkinson’s Foundation (NPF). Researchers studied 5,500 patients at all stages for multiple variables, including the effect of exercise on mobility impairment.
Data indicates an approximately 15% greater loss of mobility for those participants who did not exercise at all compared to those who exercised regularly—more than two and-a-half hours per week. Those who exercised regularly achieved an approximate 12% improvement in mobility over those who exercised on a casual basis.
The study concludes, “A well-designed exercise plan can significantly improve almost everything about your health, including stabilizing your walking, calming tremor, improving mood, and possibly even slowing progression of the disease. Regular exercise is typically associated with a lower care burden, as well. Even as motor symptoms progress, many respond well to medical and surgical treatment. But staying active remains absolutely critical.”
The more exercise, the better
The exercise programs that best alleviate symptoms and slow progression of PD were not indicated in the QII study. In fact, Dr Michael S. Okun, Medical Director of The National Parkinson’s Foundation (NPF), says, the type of exercise doesn’t really matter; people with PD will benefit from any type of movement.
While a doctor may suggest three or four times per week, NPF research shows that the more you exercise with as much intensity as possible, the greater the benefit, particularly for those with early onset PD or in the early stages. As with all exercise, patients with PD should use proper warmup and cool down techniques, work within their own limits, and listen to their bodies.
According to the NPF, “Formal exercise programs balance several different fitness criteria: strength, balance and coordination, flexibility, and endurance,” which are beneficial for patients with PD. NPF recommends aerobics, sports, yoga, resistance training, seated programs and many other options. Sometimes exercising with a partner, group or physical therapist can encourage regular attendance and help people with safety in later stages of the disease. A good goal is to find a program to enjoy, maintain and grow with over time.
Early start equals maximum gain
Additional information from the QII study reveals that people who start exercising earlier will experience a substantially slower loss of quality of life (QOL). Specifically, Dr Peter Schmidt of NPF and an author of a “delayed start” study, says, “We found that people who start exercise early get more benefit than those who start late.”
That study used self-reporting (QOL) questionnaires to measure movement, mood and social factors. Over two years, QOL scores dropped 1.4 points for early starters and 3.2 points for late starters, demonstrating a clear advantage for those who started earlier.
“This is great news that people can have a positive impact on the course of their own disease,” says Joyce Oberdorf, President and CEO of NPF. “It is tremendously empowering.”
In PD, brain cells that produce dopamine — a neurotransmitter that regulates many brain functions, such as movement and emotion—get damaged and lost. Various studies indicate exercise helps brain cells use dopamine more efficiently and protect those brain cells from damage.
The stark truth is, as NPF explains: “By the time most people are diagnosed, as much as 40-60% of their dopamine neurons are already gone.” Thus, NPF encourages everyone to increase their physical activity, whether or not they have the disease.
Finding enjoyable ways to include strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and endurance into your exercise program now, and on a consistent basis, could have important implications for your future health. If someone you love has Parkinson’s, encourage and support them in improving their exercise habits, too.