As I looked back on past articles that I have written over the last six years (yes, I started writing for The Hawk Eye in 2012 — time flies!), a topic that I think bears repeating, especially during April, which is Parkinson’s Awareness month, is the importance of exercise for people with Parkinson’s. Let’s look at some interesting facts about this disease and what can be done to enjoy a better sense of well-being and quality of life for those with Parkinson’s.
What is Parkinson’s disease? Parkinson's is a progressive disease of the nervous system marked by tremors, muscular rigidity, and slow, imprecise movement, chiefly affecting middle-aged and elderly people. Those diagnosed with it suffer from weakness, low muscle power and fatigue.
According to Wikipedia, the disease was named after James Parkinson, who first identified the disease more than 200 years ago. There is no cure for PD, but different treatments and therapies can help manage the symptoms. Countless researchers are working diligently to find a cure. I attended a Parkinson’s awareness conference last fall and listened to a young doctor from the University of Iowa make a statement we hope will be a reality: “There will be a cure some day!”
Who has PD? It can affect anyone—from a pope, Pope John Paul II, to a famous actor, Michael J Fox, to legendary singers, Neil Diamond and Linda Ronstadt, to politicians, Janet Reno and George H.W. Bush, to a professional basketball player, Brian Grant, who was diagnosed at an early age of 36, to people in southeast Iowa and west central Illinois. Men are 1.5 times more likely to have PD than women, and it hits most people after the age of 60. No two people experience the disease the same way, but often share many of the same symptoms. I found on the Parkinson.org website that about 1 million people have PD in the United States, about 60,000 new cases are reported each year, and roughly 10 million in the world are living with Parkinson’s.
What can be done to help symptoms? Medications and certain treatments are extremely important, but research shows that exercise is one thing that can delay the disease. Exercise may benefit PWP by improving balance and motor coordination, flexibility,heart and lung capacity, gait disturbances, and endurance. The time to start is as soon as you are diagnosed.
What are some exercise tips that a PWP should know? The first thing to do is check with your physician and/or a physical therapist who understands PD. Either of them can make recommendations of proper exercises and duration for your workouts. Be consistent; try to make exercise a habit that you do every day.
As with anyone who exercises, warm up, stretch, and cool down properly. Listen to your body and know your limits. You may have to take a day off if you are extra tired or in pain. Be aware of when your medications kick in and plan your workout when you are feeling good. Make sure you exercise in a safe environment.
What kinds of exercises should a Parkinson's do? Flexibility exercise focuses on stretching and improving your range of motion and can help you maintain the ability to perform daily activities. Strengthening exercises using small dumbbells or resistance machines can help build muscle mass and help with your balance. Doing some type of cardiovascular exercise will improve your endurance and strengthen the heart and lungs.
Some activities that are recommended for Parkinson's patients are walking, yoga, lifting weights, water exercise, tai chi and swimming, but certainly not restricted to those. Group exercise classes such as Delay the Disease or easy stretching and strength training are options if offered in your area. Working out with a buddy can be a great way to motivate and support each other. When there is encouragement and people are expecting you to show up, you will tend to stick with it more.
It was previously thought that high-intensity exercise might be too strenuous for Parkinson's patients. Since I last wrote about Parkinson’s disease two years ago, more research, such as some done at Northwestern University and University of Colorado School of Medicine, has been done and found that working out at a higher intensity could mean better benefits, especially for people in the early stages of PD. Examples of such programs are boxing, dancing, cycling and even fencing.
If you or someone you know has Parkinson’s, exercise is imperative to delay the disease. The best exercise is the one that you enjoy. You will be more apt to stick with it and create a habit that will be a part of your life — an essential part of your life!
Julie Kirk is a fitness instructor at Great River Health Fitness. Her column appears in Currents the second Friday of each month.