Health / Expert Advice

How Can Exercise Benefit Those With Parkinson’s Disease?

Learn how exercise can help slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease and improve your balance, coordination, and gait.

If you have Parkinson’s disease, your new normal is a daily struggle with coordination, gait, and balance. Although the thought of exercising may seem daunting, current research shows that keeping fit can dramatically affect the progression of your disease.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

With Parkinson’s, the brain neurons that make the neurotransmitter dopamine become damaged. The resulting drop in dopamine causes the classic symptoms of tremors, rigidity, slowing of movements, and impaired balance and coordination. The disease usually affects people over the age of 60, but young-onset Parkinson’s disease can occur as early as your 30s.

How can exercise help?

Drug therapy has changed the trajectory of the disease progression for many with Parkinson’s, and there’s exciting research that supports the role of exercise in slowing and even reversing some symptoms. It appears that exercise stimulates the brain to better compensate for the reduction in dopamine production through a process called neuroplasticity. This process essentially rewires the brain, creating new pathways that enable the body to move more normally.

Peter Schmidt, Ph.D., senior VP and chief research and clinical officer of the Parkinson’s Foundation, says that those with Parkinson’s disease can gain significant benefits from including two and a half hours of moderate to intense exercise every week. That amount seems to be the sweet spot for slowing the progression of the disease and improving motor function.

Taking part in almost any exercise is great for those with Parkinson’s, but Dr. Schmidt stresses that including new activities that are new (not just the usual walk) helps challenge neural circuits and stimulates the brain to learn, which can have the biggest impact on slowing the progression of the disease.

Here’s a list of activities that will keep you moving well with Parkinson’s disease.

Aaptiv has thousands of different workouts, ranging from strength, outdoor running, to meditation and yoga. 

Walking

A study published in the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation found that exercising with walking poles improves gait control. Adding upper-body movement to walking helps increase step length and coordination in those with Parkinson’s.

Walking at a varied pace is excellent for improving your cardio fitness and symmetrical movement skill. Try outdoor hills or varied inclines and speeds on a treadmill. If your disease is more advanced, consider using a bodyweight-supported treadmill to reduce your fall risk.

Dancing

Dancing is a top choice—and a fun one. The changes in tempo and direction help you maintain balance and your ability to make reciprocal movements. One study showed that tango dancing two times a week helped boost balance and improved walking speed.

Tai Chi and Yoga

Tai chi and yoga build strength and improve balance—important factors for reducing your fall risk. If you have difficulty maintaining balance when starting these types of exercise, make sure you have a handrail or wall next to you for support. As you become more skilled, you can practice the poses without the balance support intermittently until you feel comfortable letting go completely.

Exercise Machines

Indoor cycling, rowing, or an elliptical machine are excellent for training your reciprocal movement ability. For those with more advanced Parkinson’s or severe symptoms, stationary equipment enables you to continue to exercise. Mix it up to keep your body challenged—try the elliptical one day and rowing the next.

Strength Training

Strength training is a welcome addition to any workout routine. For those with Parkinson’s, it’s safer to use light weights with higher repetitions to avoid increasing your muscle rigidity. Kettlebells can be used to build strength and improve movement by combining the weight-training effect of lifting and swinging the weight—that rhythmic motion is especially helpful for maintaining normal, smooth movements.

Sports

Activities such as tennis, golf, ping-pong, and volleyball help improve your ability to shift movements—something that can become difficult with Parkinson’s. These sports generally aren’t tolerated well with advanced symptoms. But those who are still high-functioning can continue or even start them.

What else should I consider when working out?

There are a few things to think about as you plan your workouts with Parkinson’s disease. As always, consult with your physician before starting any exercise routine.

Avoid stiffness and freezing.

Large, rhythmical movements such as swinging your arms in wide circles, rotating the trunk, and rocking or swinging can reduce the increased muscle stiffness due to Parkinson’s. Freezing—when the body seizes up—is a common problem with Parkinson’s, but some techniques can help decrease this issue. Practice reciprocal arm swinging, high stepping or marching, paced walking, and using walking sticks to move your arms in the same rhythmic movement with walking.

Focus training on specific body parts.

If a specific part of your body is more affected by Parkinson’s, avoid falling into the habit of using it less. You can boost the neural adaptation by forcing yourself to work that limb with strength training and specific task movements. For example, if your left arm is more affected, practice exercises to engage it. Try tapping your right arm’s fingers, wrist, and forearm with your left hand as quickly as you can. Pair these movements with a mental picture of you doing the activity in your mind. This will further enhance the rewiring that the exercise does, boosting your functioning of that limb.

Listen to music.

Linda Rewey, a licensed physical therapist assistant, says that she has seen her Parkinson’s patients supercharge their workouts by pairing exercise with music. She says that music-cued gait training can improve the classic soft and shuffling Parkinson’s gait.

Rewey combines music with a routine of lateral and forward stepping to help rewire the brain and improve stride length and speed.

Pair your medication dose with exercise.

Try to schedule your workouts during times when your mobility is best. Monitor how long it takes for your medication to kick in to determine when to exercise.

With Parkinson’s disease, the phrase “use it or lose it” takes on greater meaning. The more you challenge your body and brain with exercise and learning, the better you’ll be able to maintain your quality of life for years to come.

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