We all know the benefits of exercise. Exercise can help a person lose or maintain weight, gain lean muscle, lower blood pressure, control blood glucose, lower cholesterol, strengthen bones and joints, give a person the functional strength needed for daily activities, improve mood, reduce depression….I could go on and on.
I have been a certified personal trainer for 15 years. Before I began a career in fitness, I worked in healthcare in Orthopedics, Physical Therapy, and Occupational Therapy. I have seen what exercise can do for a person and what the lack of exercise results in. As a personal trainer, I specialize in working with individuals with chronic conditions and older adults. My clients range from post-physical rehabilitation, to post-stroke, cardiac rehab, diabetes, MS, and Parkinson’s disease. A few years ago I began to read studies about the benefits of exercise for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. Since my dad died from complications due to PD, I was very interested in pursuing more information. I became certified as a Delay the Disease Exercise for Parkinson’s instructor, started a local class, then later took over another area class after the instructor moved out of state.
Now, it seems as if you line up ten physicians, including neurologists, and ask them if exercise is beneficial for Parkinson’s Disease, you will likely get ten different answers. Many have done their own research and while they may say they do not have scientific evidence on exercise and PD, I haven’t heard anyone recommend NOT to exercise. The debate seems to be over if exercise can change the brain which would make an impact on Parkinson’s Disease symptoms.
According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, neurons – the brain cells that produce the chemical transmitter dopamine are damaged and lost in Parkinson’s. There is a lag between the time when the loss of neurons begins and the time when Parkinson’s motor symptoms, such as tremors or slowness of movement begin to show. It is estimated that by the time most people are diagnosed, nearly 80 percent of their dopamine neurons are gone.
The good news is that the brain is actually changing, compensating for the loss of dopamine neurons. Scientists call this ability to change and compensate “exercise-dependent neuroplasticity”. The belief is that exercise may contribute to neuroplasticity by helping the brain to maintain old connections, form new ones, and restore lost ones. Research done by Giselle M. Petzinger, M.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology, Movement Disorders Division at USC, along with other research shows intense, specific and complex exercise improves walking and other motor skills in people with Parkinson’s.
I am not a neurologist or a physician, nor do I claim to have the knowledge they have. I have not spent hours doing research on the brain. However, I do know what many of my participants and clients with Parkinson’s disease have experienced from exercise. Many have seen their balance improved, their gait has improved, their range of motion and flexibility has improved, and their ability to get up out of chair has improved. Just as important, I see improvements in their mood, confidence, anxiety levels, and their outlook on life.
You see, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. Some, like my dad, hear that and they sit in a chair and wait to die. However, many, many more want to fight as long as they possibly can. They want to stay active and be able to complete their activities of daily living. I recently heard someone say, “Parkinson’s is not a death sentence, it’s a life sentence”. I don’t expect exercise to cure PD, but it does help just as it helps many other diseases. I once had a neurologist, who was not keen on my presentation of the Parkinson’s exercise program (his research showed no results with exercise on Parkinson’s disease) tell me, you don’t want to give people false hope. I don’t see it as false hope, I see hope. I see helping people to find a bright spot in their day and celebrate improvements regardless of how small. I see caregivers who come to class and help their loved ones with the exercises and even do the exercises themselves. I see people who had never met, getting to know each other and sharing their experiences. If something as simple as exercise can give hope and help you walk through life a bit better, why wouldn’t you do it?
Kris Cameron, B.S.
American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer
Delay the Disease Certified Instructor
Arthritis Foundation Certified Instructor
YMCA Active Older Adults Certified Instructor