People with Parkinson’s disease (PD) should maintain an active lifestyle as much as possible. Why is this so important? Exercise and physical activity can help improve many PD symptoms. These benefits are backed up by research.
There is no “exercise prescription” that is right for every person with PD. For sedentary people, just getting up and moving is beneficial. More active people can build up to regular, vigorous activity. Many approaches work well to help maintain and improve mobility, flexibility and balance, and to ease nonmotor PD symptoms such as depression and constipation.
Because PD is chronic and progressive, it is necessary to keep up exercise habits over the long term. The good news is that all exercise can lead to benefits. That means you can exercise according to your ability or schedule, and choose a routine that you enjoy.
What to Know: Challenges
People in the early stages of PD tend to be just as strong and physically fit as healthy individuals of the same age. But disease progression can lead to significant changes.
- Loss of joint flexibility, which can affect balance.
- Decreased muscle strength, affecting walking and the ability to stand up from sitting.
- Decline in cardiovascular conditioning, which affects endurance.
What to Know: Benefits
Exercise is an area of intense study among PD researchers. So far, studies have shown:
- Engaging in any level of physical activity is beneficial. Recent research found that doing daily physical activities like washing dishes and folding laundry — rather than being sedentary — helped ease PD movement symptoms.
- For people with mild to moderate PD, targeted exercises can address specific symptoms: aerobic exercise improves aerobic fitness, walking exercise makes gait faster, resistance training strengthens muscles. A recent study showed that twice-a-week classes in dancing the tango helped people with PD with their motor symptoms, balance and walking speed.
- Exercise may also improve cognition, depression and fatigue, but the research is less definitive in these areas.
- Studies in laboratory animals have shown that exercise changes the brain in ways that might have an impact on PD — but it is too soon to say whether exercise can slow or prevent disease progression.
Tips for Getting Started
What type of exercise is best for people with PD? The answer depends on each individual’s symptoms and challenges.
- First, be safe. Before starting an exercise program, consult your neurologistand primary care doctor about concerns and recommendations.
- Find a physical therapist (PT) who knows about PD by asking your doctor for a referral, or asking support group members. Work together to identify your issues and target exercises to improve them. For most people, a structured exercise program will include both aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) and resistance training (using weights or bands).
- Purchase a pedometer (step-counter) and figure out how many steps you take on average each day. Build up from there.
- Choose an activity you enjoy — try walking, gardening, swimming, bicycling, dancing, yoga or tai chi.
- Exercise indoors and outdoors. Change your routine to stay interested and motivated.
- Seek out local PD exercise classes. Across the country, dance classes and boxing groups designed specifically for people with PD are growing in popularity. They not only keep you moving, they also introduce you to the local PD community.