FYI Daily

Strenuous Exercise Delays Parkinson's Degeneration

Last updated:

January 10, 2012

Researchers have long known that exercise is beneficial to ease symptoms of Parkinson's disease. They're trying to figure out why -- and why strenuous exercise in particular seems to create brain changes that can dramatically delay the rate of degeneration.

The Washington Post reports that after eight weeks of bicycling three times a week at a pace high enough to break a sweat and raise the heart rate, some patients see a return of much of their mobility for nearly a month. After that, gains disappear unless the patient resumes exercising. But the benefits weren't just in the leg muscles used to pedal. The effects of better muscle control were seen throughout the body, in both gross-motor and fine-motor skills,

"Heavy-duty" exercise seems to be the key. In addition to bicycling, Parkinson's patients have found symptom relief in rigorous indoor cycling, rowing (an intensive sport), and a type of weightlifting called power lifting that emphasizes quick, repetitive lifts.

Why vigorous exercise? Exercise seems to increase blood flow and connections between brain cells. Research shows that when lab animals hop on treadmills or wheels, their brains produce increased blood flow and more synapses (message paths) between brain cells.

Parkinson's disease kills off the brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical that enables brain cells to communicate with muscles. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center neurologist Michael J. Zigmond theorizes that exercise increases compounds in the brain called neurotrophic factor (which are decreased by Parkinson's), and these compounds protect the neurons that produce dopamine. Ultimately, this slows the loss of mobility.

Most drug therapies for Parkinson's also slow mobility, but they have side effects and lose effectiveness over time. Researchers hope that unlocking the mystery of intensive exercise can help slow the progression of this neuro-degenerative disease while requiring fewer medications.

See 10 early signs of Parkinson's disease that doctors often miss.