Parkinson’s Disease and Medical Exercise

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, nearly one million Americans will be living with Parkinson's disease (PD) by 2020, which is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with other neurological diseases. Plus, PD is the second most common prevalent neurodegenerative disease, right behind Alzheimer's disease [1,2].

PD is a progressive disease with many faces. Those afflicted display non-motor and/or motor symptoms. They may have different combinations of symptoms, as well as varying severity of symptoms. Each client progresses on an individual level.

Medical professionals use a rating scale to establish the disease stage and to track its progression. This scale is used to assess motor symptoms and non-motor symptoms.

Parkinson’s disease is measured in five different stages, from mildest to most severe. Each stage is characterised by common attributes, but the severity of symptoms will diverge.

Motor symptoms that affect movement are characteristic of the disease’s effects on the body and include:

  • Tremor – a shaking of the hands, arms, or legs, especially when the limb is at rest
  • Rigidity – an abnormal stiffness in a limb or part of the body
  • Postural instability – impaired balance or difficulty standing or walking
  • Bradykinesia – gradual loss and slowing down of spontaneous movement
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Movement and exercise are crucial parts of a healthy lifestyle for everyone. For people with Parkinson’s Disease, movement and exercise are indispensable tools as they not only help to maintain balance, mobility and improve posture but can also ease and improve some of the PD symptoms. These benefits are supported by research as indicated by the Parkinson’s Outcomes Project:  

“It shows that people with PD who start exercising earlier and a minimum of 2.5 hours a week, experience a slowed decline in quality of life compared to those who start later. Establishing early exercise habits is essential to overall disease management."

People living with PD move differently. Their gestures and actions slow down and become smaller. Activities of daily living provide challenges.

Training with a Medical Exercise Specialist (MES) helps to improve movements for any activity, whether it’s buttoning a shirt, lying down or getting up from a chair, or maintaining good posture and balance while walking.

The training program is tailored to each person’s needs and goals. It is most effective and beneficial to begin training in the early to middle stages of PD. At this point function can be improved and perhaps slow down the disease progression.

There is no one single exercise method that’s best for PD. What works best will vary for each client. As long as the exercise is safe, enjoyable, challenging and occurs regularly, there are no limits. Boxing, dancing and swimming have all been cited as particularly beneficial for PD.

Exercises target postural muscles. They include balance, coordination and agility work. Fall prevention is important, too, so emphasis should be placed on bigger movements. Stretching is another important component as muscle cramps can occur with PD.

Non-motor symptoms can be targeted with exercise as well. Counting out loud and enunciating well to address speech, counting backwards, creating word lists, etc. focus on cognition. Fatigue, often part of PD, can also be lifted to a certain degree.

It’s important to understand that everybody has different limits when it comes to exercise intensity. Given that PD symptoms can fluctuate, some days may be better than others. Keeping a log can be helpful in establishing a best time, modality and amount of exercise.

If you would like support, we are here for you. Often times, the most challenging part of any health and exercise routine, is the very first step. Please contact karin@pongopower.com for a free consultation for you, or someone you love.

  1. Schapira A.H., Olanow C.W. Neuroprotection in Parkinson disease: Mysteries, myths, and misconceptions. JAMA. 2004;291(3):358–364. doi: 10.1001/jama.291.3.358. [PubMed]
  2. Schapira A.H. Neurobiology and treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Trends Pharmacol. Sci. 2009;30(1):41–47. doi: 10.1016/j.tips.2008.10.005. [PubMed]

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