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Discover the Power of Exercise for Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's Disease is reported to be the fastest growing neurological condition worldwide.  Symptoms can include tremors, slowed movement, balance problems, rigidity, loss of automatic movements (blinking, smiling, swinging your arms), speech changes and writing changes. PD is progressive and while it is not curable, patients are not powerless to fight back.  Medicines are available to help with some of the symptoms of PD, but exercise is perhaps the most powerful and effective weapon available. 


There are a variety of well designed and approved exercise programs specifically for PD patients.  Examples include Rock Steady Boxing, Dance for Parkinson's, Boxing4Health and LSVT Big/Loud.  If you have PD we encourage you to see what is available in your area.  


Even if you do not or cannot participate in formal programs or classes, you can still incorporate key aspects of these therapies into your own daily exercise:


Mindfulness - Before you start, set your intention.  Take a moment to clear your mind and focus on your body and what you are going to ask it to do for you during the exercise.  Be intentional throughout the exercise session.  Mindful movement reduces the risk of injuries and sets you up to get the most physical and emotional benefits from your exercise. It can also help increase your appreciation of what your body is able to do, and how it is improving over time.


Amplify - Parkinson's Disease can make a person "small" - walking stride length decreases, posture shrinks, arms stop swinging freely, and even the voice volume can decrease. Evidence-based physical therapy programs that emphasize purposeful amplification (think over exaggeration) of movements has been shown to help slow the progression of PD symptoms.  Over time, exercising with this approach can retrain the brain and create new muscle memory to help combat the shrink effect that PD can cause.  If you're walking, take giant steps.  If you're extending an arm, make big, broad reaches.  If you're reciting or singing, make your voice as loud as you can. 


Complexity - It's sometimes enjoyable to 'zone out' while exercising (it helps pass the time, doesn't it?).  But to get the most from exercise, especially with PD, choose exercises that require the brain to get and stay involved.  An exercise video with changing patterns and sequences of movements that require you to pay attention and follow along is a good example. Play mind or guessing games with a friend while out on a brisk walk.  Keep the brain working!


Aerobics - Recent research is showing that aerobic exercise can help slow the effects of aging on our cognitive abilities.  These are important findings for people with PD because cognitive changes can occur with this disease.  The benefits of aerobic exercise are both direct - physiological changes that affect the brain and nervous system - and indirect - positive effects on mood and sleep. You don't have to run marathons, just engage in some exercises that get your heart rate up - brisk walk, jazzercise, whatever you most enjoy doing.


Music - Music! Music! Music!  Music does more than simply make exercise more enjoyable.  Music therapy has in fact become an important component of treatment for PD.  Music and rhythm engage specific parts of the brain that allow for greater ease and fluidity of movement.  Gait and walking, common problems with PD, often show remarkable improvement when rhythm is introduced.  So turn up the volume on your favorite tunes and walk, march, dance!


If you have Parkinson's Disease you can significantly improve your quality of life with exercise that utilizes these key features.  Consistency is important - make exercise a daily priority.  And if possible make it social by joining a class for PD patients, or just enlist the company and support of a friend or care partner.  Community and connection are key ingredients in any recipe for success. 


Written by J. O’Connor (a viewer of ‘Improved Health’ and a loving wife of someone with Parkinson’s Disease)



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