Regular, moderate exercise one to two hours a week by people with early-stage Parkinson’s disease may help slow the damage it does to the body and the mind.
A study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, looked at 237 people in the early stages of the disease with an average age of 63. They were followed by researchers for up to six years. Their exercise levels at the start of the study were determined by using a questionnaire that measures time and intensity of activity during the previous week: leisure activity, like walking and biking; household activity, such as gardening; and occupational activity, like taking care of others. Other tests measured verbal and memory skills and how much time it took participants to complete mental tasks.
Researchers used a common test to rate each person’s Parkinson’s symptoms on a scale of zero to four, with higher scores indicating more severe impairment. The average score of people who got less than one to two hours of moderate to vigorous exercise once or twice a week increased over six years from 1.4 to 3.7, but those who got above-average levels of moderate to vigorous exercise increased from a 1.4 to 3.0.
Similar results were seen in the cognitive tests. One cognitive test that researchers used was a common paper-and-pencil test used to measure mental processing speed. The test gives the participant 90 seconds to match numbers with geometric figures and has a maximum possible score of 110. People who got less than 15.5 hours of work per week, on average, dropped from a 44 to a 40 on the test six years later. Those with more than 15.5 hours a week dropped only one point, from 44 to 43.
“Although medications can provide people with Parkinson’s some symptom relief, they haven’t been shown to slow the progression of the disease,” said study author Kazuto Tsukita. “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.”
Researchers note that the study does not prove that maintaining an exercise program will delay the effects of Parkinson’s disease. It only shows an association.