By definition, Parkinson’s disease is disorder of the central nervous system that causes dopamine levels to drop and leads to symptoms such as tremors, stiffness, loss and balance, and slow movement. There is no current cure for the disease, but there are ways to control and/or slow the decline.
The most common way is though medication. Dopamine promoters, antidepressants, and anti-tremor meds are often prescribed to individuals with Parkinson’s. These can be extremely helpful in terms of controlling the symptoms, but are not known to interfere with the progressive decline of the disease. A recent study run by Northwestern Medicine and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, however, found that symptoms actually slowed with a different form of medication: high-intensity exercise.
The study itself was performed with men and women in the early stages of Parkinson’s in anticipation that large amounts of medication would interfere with the results. The numbers showed that individuals who exercised three times per week for six months at a high intensity (80-85% maximum heart rate or MHR) had stable disease-related symptoms over time. Those who exercised at the same frequency and time period at a moderate intensity (60-65% MHR) saw some decline, while those who did not exercise at all saw even more decline. Researchers are not exactly sure about the mechanism behind high-intensity exercise that causes such a difference, but they speculate it may be related to the large amount of oxygenated blood delivered to the brain, which may help thwart some of the symptoms.
The next question: what type of exercise is right for individuals with Parkinson’s disease? Like anything, the answer will depend on the status of the individual. Someone who is far along in the progressive stages of Parkinson’s will be on a much more modified regimen than someone on the other end of the spectrum. However, there are several basic exercise principles that are especially fitting for people with Parkinson’s:
1.) Variation: it is always beneficial to switch up your exercise routine to prevent boredom and muscle complacency, but this is especially true with Parkinson’s. Variation leads to psychological and neurological benefits and forces the mind and body to work as one.
2.) Training all components of fitness: this includes functional strengthening, cardio, flexibility, mobility, and, balance.
3.) Large, rhythmic and coordinated movements: this will also aid in the connection between the mind and body.
4.) Switching tempos: people with Parkinson’s struggle shifting from one activity to the next, so training them to do so will make this an easier transition.
Physical benefits aside, exercise in general (high intensity or not) can be psychologically life altering. Not only can this decrease depressive symptoms, but exercise gives individuals a sense of control that they may not feel in many other situations.
Stephanie Spoto, CSCS