We all know that, with few exceptions, exercise benefits people of all ages throughout every stage of life. But did you know it’s even more important for people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) or a related neurological disorder. Researchers have conducted myriad studies that show exercise can significantly slow the progression of Parkinson’s Disease and its symptoms.

Many of us feel helpless in the face of a major disease diagnosis, but those newly diagnosed with PD have the power to materially delay the onset and worsening of symptoms through exercise.

All of our muscles will gradually become weaker as a normal part of aging, but people with PD tend to lose strength more quickly in certain important muscle groups. The major leg muscles involved in walking, sitting and standing are significantly impacted, in particular:

  • Quadriceps & Hamstrings – the large muscles in the fronts and backs of our thighs, respectively
  • Gluteal Hip Extensors – the muscles in our behinds, which are critical to sitting down, standing up and propelling ourselves forward
  • Ankle Dorsiflexors and Plantar Flexors – the muscles that allow us to pull our toes up (dorsiflexion) and point our toes (plantar flexion)

PD also tends to cause weakness in important muscles of the trunk or core, including:

  • Trunk Extensors – the group of muscles running along the spinal cord that help with bending and posture, among other everyday movements
  • Respiratory Muscles – the muscles that facilitate breathing, the most familiar of which is the diaphragm
  • Pelvic Floor Muscles – the muscles that facilitate bowel and bladder control

Any exercise program should include three different components: stretching, strength training and aerobic exercise.

Stretching

Whether you are perfectly healthy, recently diagnosed with PD or in a more advanced stage of the disease, stretching is important. There are three important things to keep in mind when stretching. First, remember to breathe while you stretch to be sure your muscles are getting adequate oxygenation. Second, hold stretches for 8-10 seconds (or longer) without bouncing. Third, while you should feel the targeted muscles during stretches, you should never stretch to the point of pain.

Strength Training

You don’t need a fancy equipment or an expensive gym membership to do strength exercises. Instead, you can use basic household items, resistance bands and your own body weight for exercise. For more detailed information, try searching for “strength training for Parkinson’s disease” or customize your search to your situation.

Some common low-impact strength exercises to get you started are:

  • Seated Leg Extensions: straighten your leg while seated and hold it, then flex your knee and place your foot back on the floor, switch to other leg, repeat.
  • Seated Leg Lifts: lift your knee off of your seat and hold it, then lower your thigh back down to the seated position, switch legs, repeat.
  • Calf Lifts: stand behind a chair, holding the back for balance, then slowly lift up onto your tiptoes and hold for 3 seconds, return to your original position and repeat
  • Bicep Curls: begin with your arm by your side and elbow fully extended, flex your elbow and raise your hand up toward your shoulder, keeping the top half of your arm in place by your side, extend the arm again and repeat. Try holding a bottle of water or book in your hand to increase the intensity.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise, sometimes referred to as “cardio,” requires enough exertion to elevate your heart rate. Everyday examples of aerobic activities are hiking, jogging, riding your bike, playing tennis, jumping rope or even dancing. If you aren’t stable on your feet, try swimming laps or taking a water aerobics class at your local senior center or YMCA. Other options for people at risk of falling might be riding a stationary bike, using a hand bike and doing movement-oriented activities while seated (think seated marching in place or high-intensity boxing movements).

Being diagnosed with a disease like PD can be difficult to accept, but it doesn’t mean you have to stop living and enjoying your life. Ask your physician what resources his or her office has available to help you, and try to focus on controlling what you can control. Don’t forget – you have the power to help yourself and limit or delay the onset of symptoms through regular exercise!

Sources: Parkinson’s Foundation Expert Briefings, Parkinson.org

Always consult with your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise regimen. This article is not intended as medical advice or treatment of any disease.

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