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Middle-aged man living with Parkinson’s disease practices yoga to help with symptoms.

Managing Early-Onset Parkinson’s Disease With Exercise

Apr 09, 2021

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. The onset of symptoms varies from person to person, but people living with Parkinson’s disease may experience tremors, bradykinesia (slowness of movement), limb rigidity, or gait and balance problems. 

People diagnosed with Parkinson’s can take multiple steps to slow the progression of the disease via medication, surgery, and lifestyle changes. Neurologists recommend exercise as an effective way to slow symptom progression due to the positive effects physical activity can have on the brain. 

How can someone with Parkinson’s benefit from exercise?

The number one benefit of exercise for someone with a Parkinson’s diagnosis is symptom management. Studies have shown that rather than being sedentary, engaging in any level of physical activity can be beneficial. Certain activities can address specific Parkinson’s disease symptoms, like performing walking exercises to help with gait. It has also been shown that increased mobility can lead to improvements in cognition and memory and reduce the risk of falls. Symptoms that lead to a Parkinson’s diagnosis typically appear when the dopamine-producing neurons in the brain begin to deteriorate. 

How does exercise change the brain?

Exercise affects how efficiently dopamine is used in the brain; it does not produce more of the hormone dopamine. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, exercise improves this efficiency by modifying the areas of the brain where dopamine signals are received. 

When dopamine travels through the brain, it connects to two brain cells through a space called the synapse. For one cell to close off the signal of dopamine to send it to the next cell, a protein complex known as the dopamine transporter has to pick it up. Studies have shown that people who exercise more have less of the dopamine transporter, allowing the dopamine to stay in the synapse longer and send a longer signal. 

Dr. Joseph Jankovic, neurologist at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, has been a principal investigator in over 100 clinical trials for treatments of Parkinson’s disease. He is also the founder and director of the Parkinson's Disease Center and Movement Disorders Clinic, which has been recognized as a Center of Excellence by the National Parkinson’s Foundation. 

“People who exercise also have increased connectivity within the brain, and they have less age-related degeneration of the brain. All of these factors support a notion that the brain benefits from long-term exercise, and this has been specifically shown in patients with Parkinson’s disease.”

-Dr. Joseph Jankovic

What is the best exercise for Parkinson’s disease?

Dr. Jankovic encourages his patients to engage in aerobic forms of exercise. Examples of aerobic exercises include walking, running, cycling, and swimming. It’s also important to consider a variety of activities to focus on motor skills, balance, strength, and other fitness components. Depending on the progression of the disease, it may be best for someone with Parkinson’s to work out with a partner or in an environment where someone could offer assistance. 

Can Parkinson’s be reversed with exercise?

While exercising cannot reverse the onset of Parkinson’s disease, it can help in slowing the progression of the disease. According to the Parkinson’s Outcomes Project, people with a Parkinson’s diagnosis who start exercising earlier and for a minimum of 2.5 hours a week have experienced a slower decline in quality of life compared to those who begin exercising later after the diagnosis. 

Does exercise make Parkinson’s worse?

Pushing yourself too hard or too fast can result in injury. Some symptoms, like tremors, can increase during an exercise session. However, the long-term benefits of exercising consistently can give you more control over tremors. Pairing exercise with medications prescribed by your neurologist is often a good strategy. If medications and other treatments are not effective, you may be a candidate for deep brain stimulation.

If you or someone you know has been experiencing symptoms commonly associated with Parkinson’s or received a Parkinson’s diagnosis, reach out to a St. Luke’s Health neurologist today. Make an appointment with the Baylor Medicine Parkinson's Disease Center and Movement Disorders Center at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center at the McNair Campus to learn more about advanced treatment options.



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