by Kate Maliha, MA (HKin)
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disease characterized by a reduction in the production of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. This lack of dopamine causes a variety of changes to movement ability, cognitive function, and emotions. Specific effects include resting tremor, slower movements, stiffness of the arms and legs and postural instability, ultimately impacting a person’s ability to carry out their activities of daily life and/or their ability to live independently. Exercise has been shown to help Parkinson’s sufferers by preventing the decrease in functional ability that results from lowered muscle mass and aerobic fitness, thus also helping to avoid the high risk of falling which often accompanies the disease.
Exercise is generally safe and recommended for those who have Parkinson’s disease, and a good program will include exercises for balance, resistance training, flexibility exercises, and aerobic training. Current research is also showing that moderate to vigorous-intensity exercise produces better results and improvements in the functioning of those with PD than low-intensity exercise.
It is important to obtain clearance from one’s doctor in order to be aware of any complications particular to a person’s specific case. Some exercises that are considered to benefit those with the disease may actually be unsafe. For instance, although treadmill walking has been proven effective, the increased postural instability experienced by those with Parkinson’s can make this mode of exercise risky as it increases the chance of a fall. Safer exercises include aquatics or stationary biking since they require less balance and stability. In addition, for those who have a severe resting tremor, free weights may not be appropriate for resistance training. In this situation weight machines may be a safer option. Functional training, in the form of balance training and gait training, is important to include in an exercise program to help reduce the risk of a fall and improve performance in activities of daily living. A good exercise program to benefit those with the disease will be consistent and planned in an organized manner, with strategies to progress the exercises properly.
Try This At Home
For gait: March in one spot, with high knees and big arm swings, to increase range of motion and improve walking ability.
For neurological ability: Work on throwing and catching movements, such as ball tosses, and picking up coins as quickly as possible to improve motor control and dexterity.
To decrease rigidity: Range of motion exercises for the areas most affected by the disease are beneficial. For the trunk, try 3-4 gentle hip circles in one direction, and then the same going the other way. Increase both your range and your repetitions as you improve.
References available upon request. Please consult a medical professional before starting this or any other exercise program. This article does not constitute medical advice.
Kate Maliha, MA (HKin) has a Master’s degree in Human Kinetics and has conducted aging research at the University of British Columbia. She is the owner of Love Your Age (www.LoveYourAge.ca), a fitness company specializing in the exercise needs of seniors.