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Exercise can help reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, and may even have the potential to do what medication currently can't — slow the progression of the disease. What do you need to know?

Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition that robs patients of the ability to use their body in the way they want, may hardly motivate you to exercise. Yet research consistently demonstrates that working out for as little as two and a half hours a week can have benefits in the form of reduced symptoms, both now and later.

When your body exercises, you brain “exercises” too. That is because although physical activity does not increase your dopamine levels, it does make the way in which your body uses the dopamine you produce more efficient. This is good news for your motor and non-motor function. Aerobic exercise — things like swimming, walking, hiking, running, or cycling — gives your heart, lungs, and nervous system a health boost and can also help alleviate depression, which many Parkinson’s patients suffer from. Learning-based memory exercises can, meanwhile, obviously help with memory.

Parkinson’s patients shouldn't overlook the two ways in which exercise can make their life better:

  • Regular exercise has the potential to lessen the symptoms you are already experiencing.
  • It may also mean your Parkinson’s disease progresses at a slower rate.

People who work out often will find they are less stiff, have a better posture, are more mobile, and are able to walk more easily. Your balance may improve with exercise as well. Exercise is good for your mental state too, as it has the power to fight stress, anxiety, and depression. Parkinson’s patients can reap these awesome benefits almost immediately.

Over the longer term, exercise-related increased mobility means you are less likely to experience serious falls and can function independently for longer.

So, what should your Parkinson’s workout routine look like? You want it to include exercises that make you more flexible (like stretching), and also strength or resistance training. The kind of exercise you pick isn’t as important as exercising itself, so get out there and do it… but talk do your doctor or physical therapist first.

Here are a few different work outs you can try.

Why cardio is essential

Aerobic, cardiovascular, or just "cardio" exercises that get your heart beating faster, like cycling, walking, jogging, or swimming increase your general fitness levels, strengthen your muscles, help you fight slowness of movement (bradykinesia) and help you walk more easily. Cardio exercise should be incorporated into any workout plan, so go ahead and do some medium to intense cardiovascular workouts for 30 minutes every few days.

Boosting your muscle strength: Resistance training

Resistance or strength training is the other essential component of any exercise routine. For people living with Parkinson's disease, doing this twice a week can reduce your tremors and slowness of movement and help you feel less stiff. As you'll notice, these benefits are slightly different from those associated with cardio, so doing both pays off.

It is, however, important to note that strength training doesn't have to involve lifting weights, and weight lifting is likely to be a bad idea, especially if you don't do any other kind of exercise, as it can make you stiff. If you do want to lift weights, use light ones, and consider using wearable ankle and wrist weights instead of those you hold.

Other exercises you may not see as a form of as "strength training" that will nonetheless make you stronger include:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Modified squats
  • Any activity you do while standing up will help you strengthen your leg muscles

Try yoga

You’ve probably heard of yoga before and might know that it is great for both body and mind. Did you also know research confirms that it can also help Parkinson’s? Parkinson's patients did Hatha yoga for eight weeks in one study, which went on to find that this kind of yoga helps you walk more easily, lessens your odds of falling, and has a significant positive impact on posture. Yoga is additionally good for the mind, which means it may reduce any depression you suffer from too.

Swimming and other water exercises

Swimming is great for your heart and lungs, and increases your muscle strength too. Lap swimming won't help your balance or help you make more varied movements, but because this activity does involve different parts of your body moving in different ways, it may be good for your coordination and also reduce your stiffness. Aquarobics and similar aquatic exercise programs will be even better for you, as they involve a much wider variety of movements. 

Tai Chi: Balance training

Tai Chi — a Chinese martial art that features slow movements for self defense as well as physical and mental wellbeing — is also an excellent form of balance training. Research shows that Tai Chi is beneficial for people with Parkinson's, and you'll also like hearing that this is a form of exercise you can do at home without any specialized equipment, though Tai Chi groups may also meet at a park near you.

Try stationary bikes instead of a regular bike

Parkinson’s disease slows your reaction time and impairs your balance, so normal bikes pose a serious risk to your safety. A stationary bike — or alternatively a tricycle — can allow you to get all the benefits of cycling without the risks Parkinson's patients may otherwise be exposed to. It also allows you to go really fast, which is great news as a study found that regular fast peddling may have as much of a positive impact on your motor symptoms as deep brain stimulation surgery.

Physical therapy

Patients in the more advanced stages of Parkinson's particularly benefit from physical therapy, during which they'll have the guidance of a professional while they work on their strength, stamina, balance, and gait. Regular physical therapy can improve your quality of life by allowing you to walk faster and more easily, increasing your range of movement, and making everyday tasks like brushing your teeth and getting dressed easier. While it's always best to work with a physical therapist, you can repeat the same exercises you're shown at home too. Because the benefits of physical therapy "wear off" after you stop exercising, it's important to keep it up.

  • Kwok, J. Y. Y., Kwan, J. C. Y., Auyeung, M., Mok, V. C. T., & Chan, H. Y. L. (2017). The effects of yoga versus stretching and resistance training exercises on psychological distress for people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 18(1).
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth.com

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