FOUND: The Fountain of Youth

running water stream

What if there was one single medication that was prescribed for your Parkinson’s Disease that could:

  • Improve mood and memory
  • Regulate blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Help you get restful sleep
  • Increase ability to concentrate
  • Lower your risk for diabetes, heart attack, and stroke
  • Boost brain function
  • Protect you against Alzheimer’s
  • Maximize bone density
  • Help relieve constipation
  • Improve your posture
  • Decrease joint pain
  • Strengthen your immune system
  • and Extend your life.

… Would you take it?

What would you pay for it? $100/pill? $500? For all of those benefits, I doubt you’d ever miss a dose! What if I told you that this magical medicine exists? It’s called EXERCISE.

Did you roll your eyes just then? Most people do. Is it because you feel gypped? Are you thinking, “But exercise is HARD! I’d rather just take a pill!”? Let me tell you something. Living with a neurological disease is HARD. Waking up with pain or stiffness, having difficulty walking, falling or feeling unsteady, and modifying your life because of your symptoms is HARD. You’re used to HARD. It’s EASY to take a pill (and most of us take a lot of them!) but often it doesn’t make our lives EASY. Exercise is HARD initially but it makes our life EASIER so long as you take it every single day.

If you (or a loved one) are living with Parkinson’s Disease, you may have noticed that you have symptoms like poor balance, gait disturbances, constipation, depression, fatigue, and rigidity, among many others, that make it legitimately hard for you to exercise. This can encourage a sedentary lifestyle that not only puts you at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, falls, and fractures, but also makes those very symptoms even worse. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken if you are hoping to have achieve health and vitality into your later years.

As we study the literature on the effects that exercise has on Parkinson’s, the findings are astounding and encouraging. Intensive exercise (that requires moderate to vigorous effort) not only helps the brain produce new neurons and form new connections, it actually helps to counteract neurodegeneration by increasing the availability of neurotrophic factors that help our brain cells survive, grow, and thrive. In laymans terms that means when you go out and get your heart rate up, you help produce superhero cells in your brain that protect the good cells from being warped or killed off. Thanks, Batman! The question is: How much exercise do you need to make a significant difference?

There theme that continues to present itself in the literature is this: People with Parkinson’s need a high-intensity, large-amplitude rehabilitation program that is specific to their symptoms 3-4 times per week for 4 weeks in order to induce neuroplastic changes and have long term effects and carryover. In one randomized controlled trial (Frazzitta et al, 2012) the patients who participated in the 4 week intensive rehabilitation program were able to improve their symptoms (gait, balance, strength, endurance) and reduce their medication (L-dopa) levels after the program was over compared to the general self-paced exercisers in the control group who needed to increase their medication (L-dopa) dosage. The effects of this study carried over an entire year! The takeaway: An annual, 4-week bout, of a high-effort Parkinson’s specific rehabilitation program can significantly slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. Can I get an “amen!” ??

As with any medicine, there are some possible side effects of exercise. Your muscles will be sore but this means that you’ve worked them hard enough to adapt and grow stronger and more flexible for the next time around. It will make you tired but you’ll notice you have more energy to do your regular daily activities like washing clothes, going grocery shopping, and walking the dog. You’re going to sweat. Gross? No! You’re cleaning out your pores and increasing circulation to every aspect of your body so it can flush out toxins that accumulate as we breathe in polluted air, eat foods contaminated with pesticides, and are in the medicines we take. Even as you are feeling some of these side effects over a few weeks, know that your brain adapts immediately and your body just needs a little time to catch up.

You may be thinking that 30 days of exercise is HARD.

Just remember: It’s not nearly as hard as living with the consequences of NOT exercising.