A way to fight Parkinson’s disease
While it’s widely known that exercise is medicine and can help ward off obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, it can also improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects nearly one million people in the U.S., according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. The disorder affects predominately dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra. While the symptoms generally develop slowly over a period of years, patients can experience tremors, stiffness, slowness of movement along with gait and balance problems.
According to a study recently published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease, exercise can improve non-motor and motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, including cognitive function.
“Exercise is extremely important for all patients with Parkinson’s Disease,” says Dr. Sachin Kapur, a neurologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. “It is good to see that more studies are being done not just looking at improving motor function but also looking at the non-motor issues such as cognition, mood and blood pressure.”
Researchers reviewed 11 studies that included a combined total of more than 500 patients with Parkinson’s with a disease severity of 1 to 4 on the Hoehn & Yahr scale that is used to describe symptom progression. Four of those studies showed positive effects of exercise on cognition function, including memory, executive function and global cognitive function. In addition, researchers found that disease severity generally improved with exercise.
Researchers concluded that all types of exercise are associated with improved cognitive function in patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. However, there needs to be more research on how the different types of exercise can improve their quality of life.
Dr. Kapur says the benefits of exercise for patients with Parkinson’s are endless.
“Exercise is thought to improve motor symptoms such as decreased rigidity, improved speed of movement and improved balance. It is easy to see why exercise does the same for most people – improved strength and flexibility and muscle tone are helpful for those things. The more important aspect is the neuroprotective aspects of regular exercise,” he says.
“Exercise likely improves brain function at a cellular level: improvement of helpful neurotrophic factors and improved dopamine signaling while also potentially decreasing inflammation, which may play a role in the degenerative aspect of the disease. We know that exercise will prolong the course of disease in Parkinson’s patients,” he says.
While the frequency of exercise may vary among patients depending on their lifestyle, Andrea Karr, an occupational therapist at Advocate Christ Medical Center, suggests they find an activity they enjoy.
“I always suggest an exercise program that the patient has an interest in, but it should have a component of aerobic exercise, gross motor exercise and a cognitive component. Research shows that Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga, ballroom dancing and shadow boxing all have the highest improvements in motor symptoms with patients due to the fact that it combines gross motor movements, aerobic exercise and cognitive functions,” she says.
“Specific programs for patients with Parkinson’s are also beneficial. LSVT BIG and LOUD therapy program, Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery and Rocksteady boxing are all directed toward patients with Parkinson’s and have shown life-changing improvements in patients who adhere to the program,” Karr says.
About the Author
Johnna Kelly, healthe news contributor, is a manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. She is a former newspaper reporter and spent nearly 10 years as a public relations professional working for state and county government. During her time as a communications staffer for the Illinois General Assembly, she was integral in drafting and passing legislation creating Andrea's Law, the nation's first murderer registry. In her spare time, she volunteers at a local homeless shelter, enjoys traveling, photography and watching the Chicago Bulls.