Cycling is among activities that can help improve, and possibly delay, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Experts recommend that people with the condition begin an exercise program as soon as possible, and stick to it, for the best result.

Carole L. Milligan/Courtesy

Cycling is among activities that can help improve, and possibly delay, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Experts recommend that people with the condition begin an exercise program as soon as possible, and stick to it, for the best result.

Aging Well: Exercise improves Parkinson’s symptoms

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This article originally was published April 12, 2010. It has been updated for accuracy.

April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month

■ For information on many aspects of Parkinson’s disease, including exercise and nutrition, visit the National Parkinson Foundation, www.parkinson.org, Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, www.pdf.org, or the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research, www.michaeljfox.o...

■ The Parkinson’s Disease Found­ation’s HelpLine provides specialists to answer questions about Parkinson’s and information about resources to help people with the condition and their caregivers. Call 800-473-4636.

■ “Delay the Disease — Exercise and Parkinson’s Disease,” by David Zid and Jackie Russell, www.delaythedisease.com, helps people develop a Parkin­son’s-specific exercise program that can be adjusted to their abilities.

Be Well Colorado

Be Well Colorado workshops provide adults of all ages practical strategies for setting and working toward health goals and coping better with persistent health problems and associated challenges including depression, anxiety and fatigue. Caregivers and partners are welcome and encouraged to attend.

The next workshops are from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, May 18 through June 22, at Colorado Mountain College. The cost is $45. Register by calling CMC at 970-870-4444 (summer registration begins April 25). For more information about the workshops or to sign up for future classes, call 970-871-7676.

There are many unanswered questions about Parkinson’s disease.

Some, such as what causes the condition in the first place, are troubling. Others, such as why exercise improves lives of people coping with the disease, are more optimistic.

Take, for instance, the European man with severe Parkinson’s disease who cannot walk more than a few steps but regularly rides his bike for miles and miles. His doctor, whose observations are described in the April 2010 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, found that other patients in later stages of Parkinson’s disease also were able to ride bicycles.

More research is needed to understand why cycling might be possible for people with Parkinson’s disease when other activities are not, and whether this might be true for other types of exercise.

The case does, however, add more hope to a string of studies suggesting consistent exercise loosens Parkinson’s grip, helping ease, and possibly even delay, symptoms, and extend a person’s independence.

Parkinson’s and exercise

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder characterized by tremors in hands, arms, legs or jaw; rigid or stiff limbs and trunk; slow movement; and impaired balance and coordination.

These symptoms, which grow worse throughout time, happen when cells producing dopamine, a chemical messenger involved in movement control and coordination, die.

Although Parkinson’s is not considered terminal, a person’s quality of life can decrease significantly as they have more difficulty walking and performing daily tasks such as driving, working, bathing and getting out of bed.

Balance and walking problems make people with Parkinson’s susceptible to falls and fractures, while loss of independence and other Parkinson’s-related factors can cause depression.

Medications are widely used to help patients manage symptoms. As with many chronic conditions, a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet, physical activity and social interaction seems to further help people with Parkinson’s maintain their quality of life.

Based on studies of mice, scientists think exercise might actually change the structure and function of the brain to help it use dopamine more efficiently. This, in addition to factors such as increased muscle mass, can lead to better balance, flexibility, strength, motor coordination and walking ability.

Social and meditative components of some types of exercise, in addition to a person’s improved mobility and independence, also help ward off stress, anxiety and depression.

Exercise tips

Any exercise is good exercise for a person with Parkinson’s disease, but experts recommend a varied program that addresses strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and endurance.

Depending on a person’s stage of Parkinson’s and capabilities, an exercise routine might include activities such as walking, running, biking, Pilates or weight training.

Alternative exercise, such as yoga, tai chi and qigong also can help improve balance, coordination, flexibility and strength while promoting a positive state of mind.

Once a person establishes an exercise program, it’s important they stick to it and challenge themselves as much as possible. The most significant gains appear in people who exercise regularly with greater intensity.

Experts suggest people with Parkinson’s, particularly young onset or those in early stages, exercise with intensity for about one hour three to four times per week.

Physical therapists trained to help patients with Parkinson’s disease can help people, particularly those new to exercise or those with more severe symptoms, in developing a safe exercise regimen to fit their needs.

Studies suggest that a person with Parkinson’s receives the most benefits from consistent exercise started in early stages of the disease, though a patient’s age or stage of disease should not be a deterrent to exercise.

For that reason, experts recommend people see a physical therapist as soon as possible after diagnosis for evaluation and help developing an exercise program to get on the right track toward maintaining their quality of life.

It’s important for people to get a referral for physical therapy from their physician in order to receive coverage from insurance or Medicare.

Appropriate exercise classes can offer a secure environment with ongoing guidance as well as a social element that can help motivate people to continue exercising.

The Aging Well program of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association offers fitness classes targeting older people coping with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other chronic conditions and age-related physical challenges.

Classes such as Arthritis Foundation Fitness and Aquatics, Tai Chi and N’Balance provide a range of opportunities from gentle to challenging exercise.

Aging Well also offers Healthier Living Colorado/Be Well workshops, which provide participants with chronic conditions goal-setting tools to make healthier choices.

For more information about Aging Well fitness and wellness classes, call 970-871-7676.

This article includes information from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, the National Parkinson Foundation and “Cycling Provides a Break for Some with Parkinson’s,” an article by Gina Kolata, of The New York Times.

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tmanzanares@nwcovna.org.

Comments

Trevor_U 3 years, 7 months ago

Hi Tamera. Very interesting! I have several friends with PD, and recently found an excellent resource. John Schappi blogs about Parkinson's Disease and aging at http://parkinsonsand5htp.blogspot.com. A Washington, DC resident, he pursues many interests, including gardening, bridge, travel, theater, biking, and internet research. His blog “Aging, Parkinson’s and Me” is uplifting -- full of personal experience, hope and humor. Thanks -- Trevor

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