From improved memory and cognition to stronger bones and muscles, there are countless health benefits to walking outdoors with Parkinson’s disease.
When it comes to living well with Parkinson’s, think of exercise as a form of medication—you don’t want to miss a dose!
For people with Parkinson’s, walking every day can drastically improve your ability to live an independent and fulfilling life. Research has found that just 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms, while improving gait, balance, tremor and flexibility.
In fact, just getting out of the house to run errands or taking your dog for a morning stroll can significantly improve your quality of life. See? You’re being healthy without even knowing it!
Now that spring has sprung, we encourage you to head outdoors for a breath of fresh air. Even taking a simple stroll around the neighborhood is a useful form of exercise because it makes the heart, lungs and muscles work harder, improves flexibility and relieves stiffness.
The many benefits of walking outside
You’ve probably heard of a runner’s high before, but did you know that walking can give you a walker’s high? When you exercise, your brain releases chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, the latter of which studies have found are lacking in the brains of people with Parkinson’s.
Walking also releases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that encourages the growth of new brain cells, which can help ward off memory loss. It tells skin to increase the production of collagen, the protein that keeps our skin smooth and elastic.
Walking prompts our muscles to release a fat-burning hormone called irisin, leading to the scientific theory that walking appears to reprogram fat cells to burn energy instead of storing it, therefore raising the metabolic rate.
The release of these valuable chemicals, proteins and hormones will boost your mood not only during the workout but afterward as well. In fact, walking outdoors in particular has been shown to lower rates of depression more effectively than walking indoors.
When you walk outside, you’re exposing your bare skin to sunlight, which prompts the body to make vitamin D, a nutrient up to 75 percent of American adults don’t get enough of. And as you walk, your heart beats faster and pumps more blood. Over time, as your heart pumps more blood with less effort, your blood pressure levels go down.
By the way, walking is a weight-bearing activity that can help strengthen your bones and protect you from osteoporosis and fractures.
There are more reasons to walk outside than not, which makes sense considering our species was originally meant to be on our feet walking for long stretches of time to locate food and avoid danger. The noticeable improvements we feel in our bodies and minds when we walk are a constant evolutionary reminder to stay active.
Tips for walking outdoors safely
When we’re active outdoors, we constantly encounter subtle changes in the environment. To keep the activity at a consistent pace, we subconsciously adapt to all those tiny changes in our surroundings in order to navigate various inclines, sharp turns, obstacles or uneven surfaces.
In other words, our bodies and brains have to work harder when we walk outside compared to walking indoors on a treadmill. We aren’t just exercising our muscles—we’re exercising our cognitive thinking. This is especially important for people with Parkinson’s disease.
Here are some tips for walking safely outdoors:
Focus on the size of your steps rather the speed of your steps. If you want to turn right, shift your weight to the left foot and step out with the right foot. To turn left, shift your weight to the right and step out with the left foot. Try not to pivot when you turn. Instead, focus on how you lift your feet. Then tell yourself to land with heel first. You can do this by thinking of each step as a big kick.
Lift your knees and swing your arms as you walk, like an exaggerated march. This could come in handy for those who have experienced gait problems or a freezing episode when they found themselves unable to move.
When beginning a turn from a stopped position, be sure to lead with your foot, not your upper body. Planting your feet and turning your upper body could lead to a freezing episode. Freezing also happens while turning around in close quarters. Try to avoid tight turns whenever possible and make wider turns instead.
If a freezing episode does happen, don’t panic! Picturing that exaggerated marching motion might give your brain a nudge to tell your body to resume moving. By thinking about what you are doing, you use a different part of your brain than the part affected by PD and can therefore re-route the message from the brain to the feet.
Last but not least, always listen to your body and stop if anything hurts or feels uncomfortable.