Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic, degenerative disease that leads to slowness of movement, balance disorders, tremors, and difficulty walking. PD results from the loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine is critical to stimulate the nerves of the muscular system in the body. PD affects approximately 1.5 million people in the USA with 60,000 new cases each year according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Most people know someone affected by PD. PD typically affects those over 65 years of age and only 15% are under 50. However, actor, Michael J. Fox brought national attention to the disease in 1991 when he was only 30 years old. Juvenile Parkinson’s, those diagnosed under the age of 40, is rare and only represens t 7% of all those with PD. Locally, many may know Sarkis Hazzouri, “Uncle Sarkie,” as the ageless handball player and daily exerciser from Weston Field, Downtown Athletic Club, and JCC. Uncle Sarkie was diagnosed with PD two years ago. At age 86 he fights back through daily activities including exercise and physical therapy.
While there is no current cure for PD, exercise can relieve some of its symptoms. Although PD affects an individual’s ability to move, exercise can help keep muscles strong, joints mobile, and tissues flexible. Exercise will not stop PD from progressing but it will improve balance, enhance walking ability, reduce muscle weakness, and minimize joint stiffness. In 2007, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that exercise may benefit individuals with PD because exercise encourages the remaining dopamine cells to work harder to produce more dopamine. Also, the researchers discovered that exercise decreases the rate at which dopamine is removed from the brain.
Exercise to improve strength, balance, and flexibility can be performed independently at home or supervised at an exercise facility. Supervised exercise can include physical therapy, recreational therapy, water therapy, yoga, and Tai Chi. Physical therapy can improve walking ability, enhance balance, reduce fatigue, increase strength, promote flexibility and minimize pain. Physical therapy uses movement techniques and strategies as well as various pieces of equipment to enhance an individual’s level of independence and improve his quality of life. Recreational therapy incorporates leisure activities (e.g. golfing and ballroom dancing) to reduce the symptoms and associated limitations of PD. Recreational therapy adapts these activities to meet the specific needs of the person with PD. The modified activities are taught by professionals who have significant knowledge and experience in this area. Water therapy is especially helpful to people with PD because the water provides enough buoyancy to lessen the amount of balance required to perform essential exercises. The cushioning effect of the water allows for freedom of movement while providing the appropriate level of resistance necessary to achieve the desired results. Using a combination of physical and mental exercises, yoga promotes flexibility, reduces stress levels, and increases stamina and strength in individuals with PD. Tai Chi, a total mind and body workout, is a series of individual dance-like movements linked together in a continuous flowing sequence. Particular benefits for people with PD include reduced stress, increased energy, improved concentration and focus, better circulation and muscle tone, and significant improvements in balance.
If you choose the convenience of a home exercise program, consult your physician for recommendations regarding: (1) the types of exercise best suited for you and those which you should avoid, (2) the intensity of the workout, (3) the duration of your workout, and (4) any physical limitations you may have. Your doctor may advise a referral to a healthcare professional to help you create your own personal exercise program.
The type of exercise that works best for you depends on your symptoms, fitness level, and overall health. Your exercise program should address not only strength but also flexibility and endurance and should include all body parts: face, mouth, neck, torso, arms, legs, hands, and feet. Some general exercise suggestions include:
Since individuals with PD are at risk for falling and freezing (becoming rigid), work out in a safe environment and, if possible, when someone is present. Avoid slippery floors, poor lighting, throw rugs, and other potential dangers (e.g. watch out for the pooch because he might want to join in the fun). If you have difficulty balancing, exercise sitting down, lying on the bed or within reach of a grab bar or securely installed rail. Stop and rest if you feel tired during your exercise program since overexertion can make your PD symptoms worse. Join us next week for suggestions on a comprehensive home exercise program.
Janet Caputo, PT, OCS, is a physical therapist specializing in the management of orthopedic and sports injuries with a special interest in vestibular rehab and falls prevention at Mackarey Physical Therapy in downtown Scranton. She is presently a completing her doctor of physical therapy degree at the University of Scranton.
Read Part II on Parkinson’s Disease and exercise