We know exercise is good for us, and people Parkinson's disease (PD) are no exception. Exercise should be considered a standard part of treatment. Beyond the benefits to physical health and mood, new research in animals shows that physical exercise may even protect the health of existing dopamine cells in aniamls -- and the same may be true for humans.
Studies in both humans and animals have shown that physical exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, like walking, running, swimming, bicycling promotes the release of neurotrophic factors —- these are chemicals that bathe brain cells in nutrients that HELP brain cells resist degeneration and to make connections with other brain cells. In addition, aerobic exercise increases the amount of blood and oxygen to the brain, thus enhancing virtually all brain functions. Decades of scientific work on exercise and the brain has taught us that (a) intensive physical activity increases the tendency of brain cells to make connections with other brain cells thus enhancing brain function; and conversely (b) reductions in physical activity leads to reductions in brain cell activity and brain cell interconnectivity. That old principle of use it or lose it may apply here. So exercise!
Studies of exercise treatment programs with PD have shown pretty conclusively that exercise improves physical functioning, strength, balance and gait speed. There is also evidence that exercise improves mood and the more general sense that ‘quality of life’ is ‘good.’ A spate of studies have shown that exercise can also improve your thinking and mental abilities.
So given all of this good news with respect to exercise, how can you start an exercise program that is right for you? The first thing to do is to contact your doctor who can put you in touch with a physical therapist. Your doctor and physical therapist can devise an exercise program that is safe for you and that will give you maximal benefit. In general, all exercises should start with a warm-up and stretching/flexibility session where you systematically and gently stretch all those stiff muscle groups. After the warm-up period, you can begin the exercise session proper. It should consist of some aerobic exercise so that you can get your heart rate up for about 20 minutes or so. There is a set range for heart rate for each age group. You can get this information from your doctor.
Always: Before you begin any exercise therapy, get the approval of your doctor and a prescription to work with a trained, experienced physical therapist.
Exercise programs have been specifically designed for persons with PD. Many national PD organizations have created programs and tools to help you get started with exercise. Check out the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) www.pdf.org and the American Parkinson Disease (ADPA) www.apdaparkison.org. These organizations have free booklets on exercise as well as multimedia programs such as videos, DVDs and webcasts that describe detailed exercise programs for persons with PD.
The Effectiveness of Exercise Interventions for People with Parkinson’s Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Victoria A. Goodwin, Suzanne H. Richards, Rod S. Taylor, Adrian H. Taylor, and John L. Campbell, Movement Disorders, Vol. 23, No. 5, 2008, pp. 631–640.
Effects of endurance exercise on ventral tegmental area neurons in the chronic 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine and probenecid-treated mice. Ahmad SO, Park JH, Stenho-Bittel L, Lau YS. Neurosci Lett. 2009 Jan 30;450(2):102-5. Epub 2008 Dec 6.
Aging brain: prevention of oxidative stress by vitamin E and exercise. Asha Devi S. ScientificWorldJournal. 2009 May 22;9:366-72. Review.