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Can exercise help ease Parkinson’s symptoms?

It’s important for a Parkinson’s disease patient to consult with his or her physician before beginning an exercise program.
A growing number of physicians, including leading movement disorder researcher Anthony Santiago, MD, believe exercise can help restore balance and function to sufferers of Parkinson’s disease.

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

Yes, according to University of Minnesota Health Neurologist Anthony Santiago, 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 Santiago, 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 significantly can reduce the motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s. Exercise is more than strength and flexibility, coordination, balance or even cardiovascular performance,” Santiago said. “It’s actually a physiology tool. In Parkinson’s patients, it can significantly repair damaged circuits and decrease symptoms. It can also repair neuroplasticity [the brain’s ability to form new neural connections] and can even result in behavioral recovery.”

By time a diagnosis is made, Santiago said, a person with Parkinson’s is already losing mobility and may experience some non-motor symptoms, including apathy, depression, anxiety, pain and discomfort and an overall lack of motivation for physical activity.

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That makes it imperative to begin an exercise regimen immediately. Exercise alone won’t aide against the disease, Santiago said, but it optimizes and complements other care, such as medication, physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Still, it’s important for a Parkinson’s patient to talk to his or her physician before beginning an exercise program, Santiago said. Parkinson’s patients often can experience a sudden drop in blood pressure, which can be brought on by sitting, squatting and standing. This, in turn, can lead to falling.

Patients who are younger or have experienced less disease progression can often endure more rigorous exercises, including, but not limited to, aerobic exercise, yoga, tai chi and aquatic therapy.

Those who are older or are more advanced in their diagnosis would likely need a lighter exercise program, which may include simple daily movement, like walking, and associated sitting exercises.

“It’s a very important part of daily activity,” Santiago said. “Exercise allows a patient to rehabilitate some of the existing challenges that have been evolving in the disease. More importantly, it can play a major role in preventing future injury.”