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Can exercise help treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms?

A growing number of physicians, including neurologist and movement disorder specialist Paul Tuite, MD, believe exercise can help restore balance and function to sufferers of Parkinson’s disease.
It’s important for a person with Parkinson’s disease to consult with his or her physician before beginning an exercise program.

Can an exercise program really help reduce Parkinson’s disease symptoms?

Yes, according to University of Minnesota Health Neurologist Paul Tuite, MD, a leading movement disorders researcher.

Parkinson’s disease, which affects roughly 1 million Americans, is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that gradually robs the victim of his or her ability to move. There is no cure, but a growing number of physicians, including Tuite, believe certain exercises, performed regularly, can help restore balance and function to sufferers of the disease. It’s a discussion that has been gaining momentum in the past decade, particularly in the past few years.

“Exercise programs may range from strength to flexibility to cardiovascular work or a combination of the three,” Tuite said. “It’s important to find an engaging routine that is easy to implement, minimizes the risk of injury and is something the people will want to do. In essence, we want to keep it simple, keep it safe, and keep it up.”

An increasing amount of research shows a connection between physical activity and improved cognitive abilities. University of Minnesota researchers recently completed a study demonstrating that Parkinson’s disease patients who participated in yoga experienced a marked improvement in the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s.

For that reason, many physicians recommend that Parkinson’s disease patients get involved in exercise programs that may aid their physical and cognitive abilities, Tuite said. Some patients engage in Tai Chi, water aerobics, boxing classes and other similar programs tailored for people with Parkinson’s disease. Some of these are focused on voice strength, range of motion, balance and other abilities. Even stationary biking or walking can help, Tuite said.

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“Overall, we encourage any type of activity that helps maintain your functional abilities,” Tuite said. “Often, we recommend that people begin these exercise routines soon after their diagnosis, so they can maintain a good level of function, rather than reacting later to declines.”

As the disease progresses, patients will need to adapt their routines to their limitations, Tuite said. That’s especially true for those with balance problems and low blood pressure that leads to light-headedness.

“We believe exercise can complement medications and other therapies. In combination with those other elements, it has the potential to help improve physical and cognitive abilities—and reduce pain or improve a patient’s mood,” Tuite said.