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How Basketball Helps Parkinson’s

Whether it’s a pickup game at your local community center or playing H.O.R.S.E. in your driveway with friends and family, basketball can ease symptoms of Parkinson’s and reenergize your social life.

When he played basketball for the NBA, Brian Grant was a power forward known for his tenacious rebounding skills. After his retirement from the league, Grant announced he was living with Parkinson’s disease (PD). The diagnosis hasn’t kept him off the court, however. He continues to play for his love of the game, as well as to gain the many health benefits the sport offers to people with PD.

The quick, coordinated, whole-body movements of basketball are hallmarks of the kind of exercise that researchers have found can improve symptoms of PD and spur the formation of new neural connections in the brain—a process scientists call neuroplasticity. It’s an important concept in PD, as the formation of new synaptic connections can help improve both motor and thinking skills affected by the disease.

Playing basketball demands multidirectional moves, upper and lower limb coordination, and staying balanced while in motion. Dribbling, shooting and jumping build motor skills and create muscle memory you can use on and off the court.

The many health benefits of basketball

During a game, players typically repeat various movements, which have to be performed in a specific sequence to be effective. Studies have shown that physical activities featuring these components are especially good in people with PD for improving balance and gait, including taking faster, more rhythmic steps.

In basketball, players have to think about their next move while they’re running and dribbling—something scientists call dual-tasking. They also receive and act on verbal feedback and physical cues from other players while they’re on the move. Researchers have found that physical activity that requires this kind of cognitive engagement helps people with PD maintain and boost their motor skills and mental function.

As an aerobic activity, basketball helps keep the heart healthy, strengthens muscle, increases endurance, and torches 600 to 700 calories or more per hour.

It can also give people with PD sounder sleep. Regular exercisers with PD had less insomnia and daytime sleepiness than their sedentary counterparts, according to a review of studies published in 2016 in the journal Movement Disorders. The same review found that even a single session of aerobic exercise can produce an immediate improvement in sleep quality.

Any exercise—including basketball—that gets your heart pounding is a major mood-booster, warding off depression and anxiety, which are common among people with PD and can magnify the fatigue and pain of the condition. Research has shown that people often feel a lift in mood after just five minutes of aerobic activity, and more profound and longer-lasting effects with regular workouts.

A 2016 study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society found aerobic exercise may also improve some of the speech problems people with Parkinson’s experience. After comparing language skills in groups of people with PD who did either aerobic workouts or stretch-and-balance exercises three times a week for 16 weeks, investigators found a significant improvement in some language skills in the aerobic group but not in the non-aerobic exercisers.

Basketball is a social sport

Isolation and loneliness are common experiences with PD, and here, as well, basketball can help. It’s a social sport that provides regular interaction with others as well as a shared interest that naturally builds community among players on and off the court.

By Emily Delzell

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