For the first time this year, the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society held its annual congress online.

Over 20,000 people from 146 countries registered for the MDS Virtual Congress to learn about the current research and approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of movement disorders. We were particularly interested in Session 603: Physical Exercise and Parkinson’s Disease, presented by Priya Jagota and Terry Ellis.

Epidemiological and Animal Studies

Priya presented an overview of epidemiological and animal studies examining the role of exercise in Parkinson’s disease. Epidemiological studies have shown that overall, exercise reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease. However epidemiological studies are unable to show whether a reduction in risk is due to a neuroprotective factor or another reason, such as people with Parkinson’s may tend not to engage in regular exercise. To help shed light on whether there is a neuroprotective factor, Priya provided an overview of animal studies. The studies she highlighted have shown that exercise can increase neurotrophic factors, neurogenesis, synaptogenesis, dopamine release and antioxidants while decreasing inflammation, oxidants production and alpha-synuclein release.

Translating Animal Studies to Humans

The results of animal studies cannot be directly applied to people with Parkinson’s. Terry therefore provided an overview of studies examining the role of exercise on the human brain. Though these studies are limited in quantity and number of participants, they show a general improvement in brain health, gray matter volume and gait. She also discussed the key elements of exercise for Parkinson’s, which includes aerobic exercise, task specific training, strength training, balance training and flexibility. Studies also show that aerobic exercise improves fitness, walking and cognition. Resistance training also may improve motor symptoms and non-motor symptoms such as cognition.

Key Takeaways

  • Epidemiological studies show a reduced risk of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease with moderate to vigorous exercise.
  • Animal studies suggest a potential disease-modifying effect of aerobic exercise.
  • Aerobic exercise in people with Parkinson’s appears to slow down the motor symptoms of the disease, as well as having benefits for brain health, overall fitness, physical mobility and non-motor symptoms such as cognition.
  • Resistance training may also help motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s as well as cognition.

Though more research is needed in this area, there are clearly many benefits of exercise for people with Parkinson’s. Terry suggests that people with Parkinson’s see a physical therapist (PT) for “exercise check-ups” similar to seeing a dentist for “dental check-ups.” A consultation with a PT who has experience with Parkinson’s can provide a goal-based exercise program for a person with the disease. Community classes are also important to encourage and motivate people with Parkinson’s to engage in regular exercise.