Managing Parkinson’s disease: physical exercise can help
The number of people with Parkinson's disease has grown significantly over the past few years, with current global estimates indicating more than 8.5 million people have the condition. No cure exists for Parkinson's disease yet, but clinicians use various treatments to help patients manage symptoms. For people with Parkinson's, physical exercise seems to help slow the progression, according to many studies. Learn which types of physical activity are most beneficial for those with Parkinson's disease.
The neurotransmitter connection
Parkinson's is a progressive disorder primarily affecting the brain. It develops when nerve cells in the substantia nigra, the area of the brain controlling movement, degenerate or die. In response, the brain cannot produce dopamine.
Dopamine affects mood, movement, learning ability, sleep, and other functions. When the body fails to make dopamine, an imbalance occurs in the brain, leading to various symptoms.
People with Parkinson's disease also lose the nerve endings that create norepinephrine. This chemical messenger plays an important role in the sympathetic nervous system, which releases hormones that control heart rate, blood pressure, and other essential functions. As a result, people with Parkinson's often develop physical health symptoms, such as irregular blood pressure.
Causes and symptoms of Parkinson's disease
Although medical researchers know nerve cell damage in the brain causes Parkinson's disease, what makes these neurons die remains unknown. Some theories suggest a person's environment or genetics may be the reason, while others say rapid aging may be behind the disease.
Since Parkinson's is progressive, symptoms will get worse with time. Many signs stem from dopamine loss and impact movement, leading to motor symptoms such as:
- Gradual loss of automatic and spontaneous movement
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Muscle stiffness of the limbs (mainly the arms, neck, and shoulders)
- Slower, more unstable walking
- Tremors (involuntary, rhythmic trembling of the arms, hands, legs, and jaw)
People with Parkinson's disease may also experience:
- Bent posture, especially at the elbows, hips, and knees
- Decreased blinking
- Dementia and other forms of memory loss
- Diminished mental abilities
- Loss of facial expression
- Trouble swallowing
- Voice changes
Parkinson's disease and physical exercise
Physical activity is important for everybody's health but especially for people with Parkinson's disease. Research from the Parkinson's Foundation found when people with Parkinson's started exercising 2.5 hours or more every week, good things happened. Exercise improves mobility and quality of life and can address many symptoms, including:
- Balance and flexibility problems
- Declines in endurance
- Difficulty walking (freezing of gait)
- Motor coordination
Research also suggests physical exercise can reduce non-motor symptoms, such as:
- Anxiety and depression
- Sleep issues
People with Parkinson's disease have many options when deciding on an exercise program, but the best ones include agility, aerobic exercise, balance, flexibility, multitasking, and strength training. Exercises that include many or all these aspects include:
- Running and walking
- Treadmill training (with bodyweight support)
- Weight and resistance training
- Yoga, Pilates, tai chi, or similar exercise classes
Boxing and Parkinson's disease
Non-contact boxing is a unique and more intensive exercise for people with Parkinson's disease. The movements and footwork the sport requires counter the disease's effects on motor skills. Additionally, some boxing classes enable you to interact with others who have Parkinson's or a similar condition, which can ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Before signing up for a boxing class, verify the instructors have experience serving people with Parkinson's disease for safety. Since boxing is intensive, safety is critical to gaining the full benefits of this sport.
Beginning your exercise regimen
Implementing a new exercise routine can be overwhelming, especially with Parkinson's disease. To ease your way into more intentional physical activity, consider these tips when you get started:
- Add variety to your exercise program, such as focusing on stretching and balance several days a week and then aerobic exercise and strengthening on other days.
- Exercise indoors and outdoors if possible.
- Make sure your exercise routine is challenging and fun, so you'll commit to it.
- Follow a consistent program for several months to years instead of only a few weeks.
- Attend events such as Moving Day and Walk for Parkinson's to maintain social support.
Parkinson's disease and physical therapy
No standard of exercise exists because Parkinson's disease is different for each patient. One exercise program may be better for you than someone else.
For this reason, people with Parkinson's should talk to their clinicians before starting an exercise program. A medical provider can evaluate your current health to identify any concerns potentially impacting your exercise, giving you peace of mind to proceed.
Physical therapists can also refer you to exercise programs. Physical therapy is also helpful for managing tremors, rigidity, and similar concerns with Parkinson's disease.
At Reid Health, our neurology providers offer various services to help people with movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease. We also offer a non-contact boxing program, Rock Steady Boxing, to enhance the quality of life for people with Parkinson's in East Central Indiana and West Central Ohio.
NEW: For those who don't prefer boxing, there is also a non-boxing exercise class, specifically designed for those with Parkinson's disease.