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A bicycle trip across Iowa 20 years ago sparked Jay ­Alberts’s interest in the power of exercise to treat Parkinson’s disease. After riding a tandem with a Parkinson’s patient, he was struck by the improvements in her handwriting after several days of pedaling. “It was a real aha moment,” he tells the Washington Post. “It got me thinking that maybe something was changing in the brain.”

Alberts, a PhD and Cleveland Clinic neuroscientist, has been studying the connection between exercise and Parkinson’s ever since. He suspects that a solid fitness regimen ramps up the production of proteins that boost brain-cell growth. “They don’t produce dopamine, but they may reduce the effects of whatever is causing the loss of dopamine,” he explains.

He points to a recent study involving Parkinson’s patients who pedaled stationary bikes at a high intensity three times a week for eight weeks. Researchers tested the participants’ ability to react to a timed task prior to the study and again after the two months of workouts. The improvements they noted, Alberts believes, “could aid in the performance of activities of daily living.”

Other research suggests that the secretion of the hormone irisin during endurance exercise may reduce the production of alpha-­synuclein, a protein associated with the development of Parkinson’s. And Caroline Tanner, MD, PhD, a neurology professor at the University of California San Francisco, argues that regular workouts may ease chronic inflammation, which has been linked to neurological disorders.

Indeed, Tanner predicts that the 90,000 cases of Parkinson’s currently diagnosed each year in the United States could fall by almost half by 2030 if we simply exercised more regularly and vigorously. “This could have amazing public-health consequences,” she tells the Post.

The anecdotal evidence supporting this view is compelling. Take the case of Bob Sevene, 79, who struggled to stand upright and needed a back brace and walker to get around following his 2019 diagnosis. In 2021, Sevene began a noncontact boxing regimen designed for Parkinson’s patients, as well as a daily high-intensity fit­ness routine that includes 25-minute cycling sessions on a stationary bike and brief sprints in the hallway outside his apartment. The results have been transformative: He no longer needs the back brace or walker.

“My doctors have run strength, balance, and gait tests, and everything has improved,” Sevene says. “They decided to not up my medicine. I’m convinced exercise is the reason.”

Ryan Cotton, DHSc, CEO of Rock Steady Boxing, a program created for people with Parkinson’s, tells the story of a retired military officer who donned the gloves six years ago when he needed a walker to steady himself. “He took out all his frustrations on the bag,” Cotton recalls. “Six months later, he was walking independently and later ran a half-marathon. Today, someone seeing him on the street wouldn’t even notice he had Parkinson’s.”

1 Million
Number of Americans living with Parkinson’s, making it the second-most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s.

And Sherri Woodbridge, writing in Parkinson’s News Today, describes how she’s benefitted from the LSVT BIG program, a physical therapy regimen designed to enhance movement. “The BIG treatment improved my walking in general, and I gained confidence with ‘stairstepping,’” she notes. “I no longer take each stair sideways, with extreme caution, and slower than molasses. The program helped me to be more intentional in my ­activities and how I carry them out.”

More research will certainly be forthcoming, but Tanner and others caution those with Parkinson’s against waiting for more evidence before they begin a workout regimen. “There already is enough excellent evidence to suggest this is a very good thing to do if you are a person with Parkinson’s,” she says.

This article originally appeared as “Can Exercise Mitigate the Effects of Parkinson’s?” in the July/August 2023 issue.

Go Deeper

Explore the causes of the world’s fastest growing neurological disorder — and discover the innovative new treatments and functional therapies that can help patients live long and productive lives at “Fighting Parkinson’s.”

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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