Intense Exercise May Help Slow Parkinson’s Disease, Experts Say

A man is seen on a treadmill
Researchers are learning how exercise may impact symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. LightFieldStudios/Getty Images
  • Intense and rigorous exercise may help slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease according to a new study.
  • Parkinson’s disease is a condition that is newly diagnosed in almost 90,000 people each year in the United States.
  • Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative condition in the world.

​An international group of researchers has recently discovered that a rigorous exercise program may potentially slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease – giving way for non-pharmaceutical approaches to helping with symptoms and treating the condition.

Parkinson’s disease is a condition that is newly diagnosed in almost 90,000 people each year in the United States according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Currently, there is no cure.

Clinical scientists around the world are attempting to not only find a cure but also are looking to help manage symptoms and understand how this management works.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative condition in the world after Alzheimer’s disease and is caused by multiple years of damage.

However, the early stages of this condition are difficult to understand as many of the symptoms occur years after the damage starts. 

This study in rats, investigated whether rigorous physical activity could affect the brain changes present in an experimental model of Parkinson’s.

Aerobic exercise has helped people with Parkinson’s

A group of neuroscientists from the Faculty of Medicine of the Catholic University, Rome Campus with the A. Gemelli IRCCS Polyclinic Foundation published data July 14 in the journal Science Advances showing that intensive exercise reduces both the motor and cognitive symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Through this research they also better understand how this occurs.

“As a neurologist, taking care of Parkinson’s disease patients in the early stages, I noticed that some of them had better course of the disease when they were routinely active doing aerobic exercise,” said Paolo Calabresi, corresponding study author and Full Professor of Neurology in the Department of Neuroscience at Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, Italy.

Other studies have emphasized this trend.

Why exercise can help mitigate Parkinson’s disease symptoms

Calabresi told Healthline that “a neurobiological explanation of the amelioration induced by physical activity” was lacking and his study worked to understand how this benefit occurred to help develop future treatments.

While some studies had shown that exercise had improved both motor and cognitive performance, none had demonstrated the precise mechanism of the beneficial effects and this study used rat modeling to understand how this benefit works. 

By introducing rats to agents to cause the early effects of Parkinson’s disease, scientists initiated rigorous treadmill testing to understand the reversible nature and preservation of motor control and movement with these exercises.

“Alpha-synuclein is a protein which is normally present in the brain, but in Parkinson’s disease, it accumulates to high levels and forms clumps called ‘aggregates,’” said Dr. David Standaert, Professor and Chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Neurology in Birmingham, Alabama.

It is believed that these aggregates damage neurons, or nerve cells, which help send signals throughout the body. 

Through exercise, there is a reduction in these aggregates “suggesting that exercise will have a lasting benefit and may slow the overall progression of Parkinson’s disease,” Standaert, who was not involved in the study, told Healthline. 

In the study, researchers found that through exercise, there was preservation and less spread of the Parkinson’s disease-causing aggregates, thus lowering the symptoms and decreasing the spread of the disease.

Although this experiment involved intensive exercise for approximately four weeks, Calabresi believes that constant exercise is not always necessary.

“We found that positive effects of exercise on synaptic plasticity is lasting at least a week after the interruption of motor activity,” he said. 

Calabresi explained that brief interruptions in exercise do not seem to influence or change the benefits of exercise, but longer periods of inactivity can – promoting the importance of exercise in Parkinson’s disease.

Current therapies for Parkinson’s aim to treat symptoms

As of today, most of the therapies that are available for Parkinson’s disease are based on symptomatic care, and there are currently no medications that have proven effective in changing the course of the condition. 

Although there are medications geared toward treating the symptoms, non-pharmaceutical approaches can also be taken to help curb this disease.

“Exercise is clearly beneficial in Parkinson’s disease, and leads to better short-term and long-term outcomes,” says Standaert. 

“Other important measures in managing Parkinson’s disease are ensuring adequate sleep, hydration, and a balanced diet which incorporates fiber,” he told Healthline. 

Although exercise is one element in the approach to treating Parkinson’s disease, a multifaceted approach is necessary in helping to control symptoms and reduce disease progression.

Standaert believes using exercise in both “early stages to more advanced stages,” together with medications is a beneficial muti-factorial way to help control Parkinson’s.

Patients should “work with your physician and use the lowest dose that is effective in restoring the ability to be active,” he continued.  

Although it does not take care of all symptoms, exercise rigorously may slow disease progression and is encouraged by all clinicians who work closely with this condition.

“I think our study says that people involved in the care of Parkinson’s disease patients, such as medical doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, and caregivers, should encourage the patients to start or continue [an] active lifestyle and in particular, to focus on aerobic exercises,” Calabresi told Healthline. 

Takeaway

A new study finds evidence for why intense exercise may help people with Parkinson’s disease decrease their symptoms. Researchers used rats to find that through exercise, there was preservation and less spread of the Parkinson’s disease-causing aggregates. As a result, they found exercise helped lower the symptoms and decrease the spread of the disease.

Dr. Rajiv Bahl, MBA, MS, is an emergency medicine physician, board member of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, and health writer. You can find him at RajivBahlMD.

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