A simple exercise regimen may be the key to slow the progression of early-stage Parkinson’s disease. New research – published last month in the journal Neurology – found that four hours of “moderate exercise” each week was enough to make a noticeable impact on those with the movement disorder.
The researchers noted that the activity could be any mix of traditional exercise and other physical activity; the important aspect was the regular engagement over time—and not how physically active the individual was at the onset of the disease. Those who exercised regularly saw less decline in walking ability and sense of balance, and also scored better on cognitive examinations five years later.
“Our results are exciting because they suggest it may never be too late for someone with Parkinson’s to start an exercise program to improve the course of their disease,” said Kazuto Tsukita, MD, one of the study’s authors, in a release. “That’s because we found that to slow progression of the disease, it was more important for people with Parkinson’s to maintain an exercise program than it was to be active at the beginning of the disease.”
The researchers evaluated a total of 237 individuals with an average age of 63, all who had noticed the warning signs and were in the early stages of Parkinson’s, and followed their progress for up to six years. Exercise and leisure activities were closely measured, including walking, daily activities, caring for others and any occupational activities. Participants also completed cognitive exams to measure both verbal skills and memory, as well how long it took participants to solve mental challenges.
The study found that a person’s level of physical activity when the study began had little impact over their disease progression. Maintaining that level of exercise over time made a bigger difference. Using a scale of zero to four, the researchers measured each participant’s symptoms and found that those who exercised the least (about an hour one to two times each week) increased from 1.4 to 3.7, compared to those who achieved at least four hours each week of “moderate to vigorous exercise,” who only increased from 1.4 to 3.0 during the same timeframe.
While the researchers were sure to point out the study only shows an association between exercise and symptom delay – and that exercise activity was self-reported by the participants – the research nevertheless shows promising results.
“Although medications can provide people with Parkinson’s some symptom relief, they haven’t been shown to slow the progression of the disease,” Tsukita said. “We found that regular physical activity, including household tasks and moderate exercise, may actually improve the course of the disease over the long run. Best of all, exercise is low-cost and has few side effects.”