Managing Parkinson’s symptoms with exercise

Battling Parkinson’s disease? Fight back with exercise. That’s the message emerging from a growing body of research finding that people with Parkinson’s who exercise fare better over time than those who are not active.

“Exercise is not just beneficial for people with Parkinson’s, it’s essential,” says Janet Millar, Clinical Director and Physiotherapist at the Maritime Parkinson’s Physiotherapy Clinic in Halifax. “In our clinic, we tell people that exercise is as important as medication. We say this because recent literature suggests that exercise can and does improve Parkinson’s symptoms.”

Typical symptoms include slowness and stiffness, impaired balance, muscle rigidity and stooped posture. “These movement issues become impossible to deal with, at some point, if people with Parkinson’s do not keep themselves in good physical condition,” says Millar.

Noting that almost any kind of physical movement can be beneficial, if done properly, Millar recommends to her clients with Parkinson’s:

Exercise regularly, meaning daily. Make it challenging. “Those are the two criteria in which the literature tells us Parkinson’s can be slowed down.”

Focus on five key areas: endurance, flexibility, balance, posture, strength.“Walking is one of the most beneficial activities. It addresses several of those five issues and it provides opportunities to pay attention to stride length, gait pattern and arm swing, which are all affected in Parkinson’s.”

Emphasize the anti-gravity muscle group. “These are the muscles that straighten you or make you taller.” Back extensors, knee straighteners, triceps – the muscles at the back of the elbow that straighten the arms, enabling you to reach up, to the side and behind the back, shoulder blade squeezes. “These work against the typical stooped posture in Parkinson’s.”

Make exercise a lifelong habit. “There is something every single person can do – right from the person who can work out in the gym alongside everyone else to the person who may be confined to a bed and need extra support and intervention.”

Get active and stay active. People who enjoy group exercise can look for classes at community recreation centres. If not, they may find something they can do on their own or with a buddy. Millar: “Find physical activities that the person likes or will, at least, tolerate. I think that is the secret to compliance.”

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