To understand how something as simple as exercise could change a patient’s symptoms, we first need to look at the disease. Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disease that primarily affects brain cells (neurons) that produce a chemical called dopamine, which is crucial in controlling movement. Neurons normally do not reproduce or replace themselves, so when they become damaged or die, they cannot be replaced. Parkinson's disease, which affects approximately 1 in 300 people, is an incurable and progressive condition that causes tremor, slowness of movement, stiffness, walking difficulty and loss of balance.
While a number of drugs effectively treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease, no drugs or vitamin supplements have been shown to slow the progression of Parkinson's disease. But exercise appears to cause changes in the brain that stop some of the dopamine-producing cells from dying and may also increase the number of receptors that respond to the dopamine that is left.
This effect is thought to occur because exercise increases the production of growth factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which has been shown to be decreased in patients with early Parkinson’s disease. Intensive treadmill training was also shown in at least one study to increase the number of dopamine receptors in the brain.
A study in the Neurorehabilitation Neural Repair journal in 2015, for example, showed that exercise may not only treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but may actually slow the progression of the disease.
Examples of exercise programs for people with Parkinson’s disease include:
- Intensive sports training
- Treadmill training with body weight support
- Resistance training
- Aerobic exercise
- Alternative forms of exercise (Yoga, Tai Chi)
- Home-based exercise (workout tapes)
- Practice of movement strategies
However, any physical activity is better than none. Getting started on an activity program often seems difficult, especially when you are not moving well due to Parkinson’s disease. It is important to set realistic expectations. Try starting your day with some gentle stretches in bed. Take short walks around your home, down the hallways if you live in an apartment, or to the mailbox and keep track of what you are doing by writing down your activities on a calendar or in a notebook. Most importantly, do things that you enjoy!
Consider taking part in the Salt Lake LiVe Well Center’s “Move Well Studio,” which is a 2,000-square-foot gym staffed by exercise physiologists and fitness experts to educate, train and oversee individuals with a personalized exercise plan. They can also help you get started on your journey to exercise. Remember, exercising doesn’t just mean to increase your physical activity, it also means to exercise your right to take charge of your disease.