Currently there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. It is a chronic neurological condition that affects 100,000 Canadians, mostly in, but not limited to, those over age 60. There is reason to believe however that the symptoms of this disease can be slowed or changed through regular physical activity. It is known that on a day to day basis, people with PD who exercise regularly are able to move more normally than those who don’t.
It is known that in PD the brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical that carries signals between cells in the brain and helps control body movement are damaged and lost. There is a lag time between when the loss of these cells begins and when the motor symptoms of the disease start to show. During this lag time the brain is actually changing to compensate for the loss of dopamine neurons.This ability of the brain to change is known as neuroplasticity and scientists believe that exercise may contribute to neuroplasticity, helping the brain to maintain old connections, form new ones and restore lost ones.
One study divided 67 people with PD into 3 groups. One group exercised briskly on a treadmill for 30 minutes at 70-80 % of their maximum heart rates. The 2nd group also walked on a treadmill but at 40-50 % of max HR for 50 minutes. The 3rd group did leg strength training with weights as well as stretching exercises. All groups worked out 3 times a week for 3 months. At the end of the study, all groups had improved but in different ways. Not surprising, the walking groups improved their cardiovascular fitness and the weight training group improved leg strength. What was surprising was that the group who exercised at the higher intensity on the treadmill did not improve in their walking speed as much as the other two groups. In all groups walking gait was improved, meaning less shuffling or freezing. The conclusion made was that both moderate cardiovascular and strength training on a regular basis are important for those with PD, just as they are for the general population.
Other activities that have been shown to help those with PD improve their mobility are dancing, Nordic walking, boxing and yoga or Tai Chi. I think the message is that whatever the activity, if it is done on a regular basis as soon as possible after being diagnosed it will be of a benefit. Studies have also shown the sooner a PD patient gets involved in a “fall prevention” program the better. Risk of falling can be lessened a great deal through balance training exercises. Balance improves as does confidence which translates to a lessened fear of falling and fewer falls. Being told you have PD does not mean you should sit down and take it but rather get up and fight back.