Exercise Is Medicine
My research convinced me exercise was essential to spar effectively with PD. But what kind and where to find it?
My first neurologist referred me to Big and Loud training at Florida Hospital -Tampa. That’s physical therapy for stretching tense muscles and voice modulation. I benefited but needed Capital Eexercise.
I asked the Big and Loud PTs about that. They pointed me to Tai Chi exercise training.
I found Tai Chi a bit mannered and slow. Nice companions, but I was still searching for The Capital E.
Next tip was that two Tampa YMCAs were starting high-speed, spinning classes for Parkies. I began one-hour sessions twice a week on the spinning bikes. Felt good. Still do it.
But I needed still more.
The more came in a newspaper article. Something called Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) was opening in a West Tampa Bay gym 45 miles from my home. Intriguing name. Worth checking out for my blog.
To see first what RSB was like, I went to thewebsite
https://www.rocksteadyboxing.org/videos/ and opened the YouTube video “We are Rock Steady Boxing.”
Intriguing. I needed to see it for myself.
Gym owner Tara Schwartz pitched program benefits this way: “The studies have shown that forced intense exercise has slowed the progression of Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s slows the conduction of the nerve to the muscles, so everything slows down. Boxing does the absolute opposite of that. And it’s a non-contact form of boxing.”
Good elevator speech, Tara. I watched one day. Signed up and worked out the next.
Ninety intense minutes to pulsating music and demanding, disciplined but supportive instructors: “Elbows up…jab, jab, hook…chest out, stomach in…just 10 more seconds.”
Tara’s class typically has 12 to 15 participants who work out ideally at least three days a week.
Said Tara: “While focusing on overall fitness, strength training, reaction time and balance, workouts include ring work, focus mitts, heavy bags, speed bags, double ended bags, jump rope, core work, calisthenics and circuit weight training. No boxing experience is necessary, and people of all ages are invited to participate.”
Sessions run 90 minutes and typically have 30 minutes of stretching exercises, 30 minutes of weight training and 30 minutes of working on the punching bags.
Until the Lightning Strike (Chapter 4) put me down, I made the 90-mile round trip to the Largo gym three times a week.
Rock Steady was a tonic. It returned my energy, concentration, focus and stamina to pre-PD levels.
I also glimpsed the power that comes with the camaraderie of working a common task with close friends. I will write more about that in Chapter 9.
A growing body of research affirms how exercise improves PD symptoms, bends the disease direction in the right way and helps the brain build new neural pathways to replace functions destroyed by PD.
NPF gets it right about exercise with this summary of the literature as of 2017 (14):
There is a growing consensus amongst researchers about the short- and long-term benefits of exercise for people with PD.
Exercise can benefit in two ways:
Symptom management. Research has shown that exercise can improve gait, balance, tremor, flexibility, grip strength and motor coordination. Exercise such as treadmill training and biking have all been shown to benefit, as has tai chi and yoga (although more studies are needed).
Possibly slowing disease progression. There is a strong consensus among physicians and physical therapists that improved mobility decreases the risk of falls and some other complications of Parkinson’s.
They agree that practicing movement – physical therapy, occupational therapy, and participating in an exercise program – improves mobility. By avoiding complications, you can avoid some of the things that can make PD worse.
Beyond this, we know that people who exercise vigorously, for example by doing things like running or riding a bicycle, have fewer changes in their brains caused by aging. Studies in animals suggest that Parkinson’s disease is also improved by exercise. Many neurologists in the NPF Center of Excellence network recommend intense exercise to their patients and also to people who are worried about getting PD because of a family connection. One Parkinson’s Outcomes Projectstudy has proven that people with PD who vigorously exercise for 2.5 hours per week show a slowed decline in quality of life, and the sooner they begin vigorous workouts after diagnosis, the better.
The best way to achieve these benefits is to exercise on a consistent basis. People with Parkinson’s enrolled in exercise programs with durations longer than six months, regardless of exercise intensity, have shown significant gains in functional balance and mobility as compared to programs of only two-week or ten-week durations.
However, when it comes to exercise and PD, greater intensity equals greater benefits. Experts recommend that people with Parkinson’s, particularly young onset or those in the early stages, exercise with intensity for as long as possible as often as possible. Your doctor might recommend an hour a day three or four times a week, but most researchers think that the more you do, the more you benefit.
Intense exercise is exercise that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe heavily. Studies have focused on running and bicycle riding, but experts feel that other intense exercise should provide the same benefit.
What happens in the brain to produce these visible benefits? Researchers at the University of Southern California (Fisher et al.) looked at the brains of the mice that had exercised under conditions parallel to a human treadmill study. They found that:
- Exercising changed neither the amount of dopamine nor the amount of neurons in the animals’ brains.
- But in the ones that had exercised, the brain cells were using dopamine more efficiently.
- They also found that exercise improves that efficiency by modifying the areas of the brain where dopamine signals are received – the substantia nigra and basal ganglia.
Living the “vertical” life means exercise, and plenty of it. Try the many options to find the right fit, then stick with