Music to walk by…

Could walking to music improve gait and balance in Parkinson’s? That’s what Dr. Lesley Brown, a kinesiology professor at the University of Lethbridge would like to know.

Director of the Balance Research Laboratory at the University of Lethbridge, Dr. Brown notes, “One of the major challenges with walking, that leads to instability and falls, is a further slowness when people with Parkinson’s try to multi-task; for instance, walk and talk or walk and carry something. This seems to be detrimental to their ability to maintain balance. We’re trying to see if we can use music to help improve some of the multi-task deficits that people with Parkinson’s experience.”

Dr. Lesley Brown
Dr. Lesley Brown, Associate Professor, Kinesiology, University of Lethbridge

In her small research study, 40 people with Parkinson’s participated in a walking program, 30 minutes a day, three times a week for 12 weeks, while listening to an iPod loaded with the type of music the person liked but carefully selected to match the individual’s walking tempo and rhythm. Participants’ walking abilities were assessed before and after the walking program.

The research data are still being collated but already show some promising results.

As expected, in the pre-test assessment, people with Parkinson’s walked more slowly while listening to music on an iPod than did people in the control group (those who didn’t have Parkinson’s).

However, after the 12-week walking program, “the participants with Parkinson’s were able to walk while listening to music without any detriment to their walking pace,” says Dr. Brown. “That’s exciting because it tells us that this multi-tasking deficit that Parkinson’s patients experience can be alleviated with training.”

Another interesting finding was that for people with Parkinson’s, the ability to walk while doing something that wasn’t movement-related – counting backwards – had also improved. “The hope is that this improvement might be extended to everyday dual-tasking scenarios,” says Dr. Brown. She theorizes that, with practice, participants had learned to distribute their attention to more than one task.

The findings point to the potential for physiotherapists to recommend walking to music as an enjoyable activity for people with Parkinson’s to add to their exercise regimen as an ongoing, alternate therapy for disease management.

Another segment of the study is measuring the participants’ ability to step over obstacles in their path. These results are not yet available.

In the meantime, Dr. Brown cautions against strapping on an iPod and heading to the mall. She stresses that “people need to walk to music on their iPods in a quiet place where they can monitor their own safety until they become comfortable walking to music.”

Dr. Brown’s study was conducted in Lethbridge and Halifax, in collaboration with Dr. George Turnbull, professor of physiotherapy at Dalhousie University and founder of the Maritime Parkinson Clinic. It is part of a large-scale research study centred at the University of Calgary with principal investigator, Dr. Bin Hu.