Maintaining Health and Mobility
One of the most frequently asked questions by Parkinson's disease patients at the Movement Disorders Program is: What can I do to improve my condition or to keep it from getting worse?
Three elements important to maintaining health and mobility when you are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease are a good neurologist, a treatment plan that responds to your needs and exercise.
Exercise is crucial, said Echo Tan, MD, a neurologist with the Cedars-Sinai Movement Disorders Program. The advice is simple, but not necessarily easy for people who don’t already have a regular routine.
"A lot of my patients don't have an exercise routine to start with," Tan said. "Just do anything. Start somewhere. Anywhere."
While there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, the condition is manageable, Tan said. Exercise is one way to slow its progression.
"There's a misconception that you get the disease, and the next day you're frozen, and you can't do anything," Tan said. "That's not the case. People can go on for years or decades, working, living fulfilling lives."
The Benefits of Exercise
Exercise helps Parkinson’s disease patients in two ways, according to research.
- Improves symptoms. Balance, flexibility, grip, coordination and gait can be improved or maintained with regular exercise. Tremors can be managed. Biking, walking on a treadmill, yoga and tai chi are good exercises for these symptoms.
- May slow the progression of the disease. Improving mobility decreases the risk of falls and complications that can make the disease worse. In a study by the National Parkinson Foundation, those who exercised vigorously for 2½ hours weekly maintained their quality of life longer than other patients. The sooner the vigorous exercise began, the better.
Tan recommended these tips to newly diagnosed patients who are just getting started with exercise.
- Mix it up. Aerobic—or cardio—exercise, stretching and weight training are all important. She suggested that patients begin with one or two activities, four days a week.
- Pick something you'll like. Exercise does not have to be a painful slog or limited to the gym. Running, biking and other sports are popular among her patients. Another favorite is Rock Steady Boxing, a form of no-contact boxing developed for people with Parkinson's disease.
- Know your body. The phrase "no pain, no gain" is a myth. If you feel pain, stop the exercise. Exercise when you are rested and your medications are working well.
- Be realistic. Don’t expect to go from little to no exercise to an hour of running. Start with smaller bits of exercise, even just a few minutes at a time. Then work up to 10 minutes, three times a day, and continue adding time and intensity from there.
- Exercise with a partner. Exercising with a friend or loved one adds benefits: fun, support and accountability. Walking, running or cycling groups and classes can also help.
Kick It Up
Patients who are already athletic and have been exercising regularly can continue to challenge themselves.
- Increase intensity. Research shows that intense exercise has the highest benefits for people with Parkinson’s disease. If your heart rate is accelerated, your breathing is heavy and you’re working up a sweat, that’s intense exercise. Some recommend an hour a day, three to four days a week. Research indicates that the more you can do, the greater the benefit.
- Be consistent. Regardless of intensity, exercise programs that last longer than six months tend to have more benefits than regimens of 10 weeks or fewer.
- Exercise caution. Safety is crucial, no matter how fit you are. Injuries have the potential to set back your exercise program and to aggravate your disease. Stretch. Warm up. Cool down. Wear proper gear. Always stop if you feel pain.
For all patients, Tan recommended some level of exercise as soon as they are able. The sooner exercise becomes a habit, the more potential benefits it holds.