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Researchers are learning how exercise may impact symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. LightFieldStudios/Getty Images
  • Intense and rigorous exercise may help slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, according to a new study.
  • The neuroscientists observed that intensive exercise reduces the motor and cognitive symptoms associated with Parkinson’s in rodents.
  • According to the researchers, the findings should encourage people living with Parkinson’s disease to start or continue an active lifestyle that emphasizes aerobic physical activity.

​An international group of researchers recently discovered that a rigorous exercise program could potentially slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, giving way for non-pharmaceutical approaches to helping with symptoms and treating the condition.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a condition that is newly diagnosed in almost 90,000 people each year in the United States, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Currently, there is no cure.

Clinical scientists are attempting to not only find a cure for Parkinson’s but also looking to help manage symptoms and understand how this management works.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative condition worldwide after Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and is caused by multiple years of damage.

However, the early stages of this condition are difficult to understand as many of the symptoms occur years after the damage starts.

In the new study, neuroscientists investigated whether rigorous physical activity could affect the brain changes present in an experimental model of Parkinson’s.

The findings were published on July 14 in the journal Science Advances.

Intensive exercise, or moderate to strenuous physical activity, usually refers to heart-pumping aerobic exercise. Examples of intense exercise may include jogging or running, cycling, or high intensity interval training (HIIT).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week.

For the new study, researchers from the Faculty of Medicine of the Catholic University, Rome Campus and the A. Gemelli IRCCS Polyclinic Foundation found that intensive exercise reduces both the motor and cognitive symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease using a rodent model.

Through this research, they gained a greater understanding of how this reduction in symptoms occurs through exercise.

“As a neurologist, taking care of Parkinson’s disease patients in the early stages, I noticed that some of them had better course of the disease when they were routinely active doing aerobic exercise,” Paolo Calabresi, corresponding study author and Full Professor of Neurology in the Department of Neuroscience at Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, Italy, told Healthline.

Other studies have emphasized this trend.

Calabresi told Healthline that “a neurobiological explanation of the amelioration induced by physical activity” was lacking and his study worked to understand how this benefit occurred to help develop future treatments.

While some studies had shown that exercise had improved both motor and cognitive performance, none had demonstrated the precise mechanism of the beneficial effects and this study used rat modeling to understand how this benefit works.

By introducing rats to agents to cause the early effects of Parkinson’s disease, scientists initiated rigorous treadmill testing to understand the reversible nature and preservation of motor control and movement with these exercises.

“Alpha-synuclein is a protein which is normally present in the brain, but in Parkinson’s disease, it accumulates to high levels and forms clumps called ‘aggregates,'” said Dr. David Standaert, Professor and Chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Neurology in Birmingham, Alabama.

It is believed that these aggregates damage neurons, or nerve cells, which help send signals throughout the body.

Through exercise, there is a reduction in these aggregates “suggesting that exercise will have a lasting benefit and may slow the overall progression of Parkinson’s disease,” Standaert, who was not involved in the study, told Healthline.

In the study, researchers found that through exercise, there was preservation and less spread of the Parkinson’s disease-causing aggregates, thus lowering the symptoms and decreasing the spread of the disease. Some of the benefits of exercise on Parkinson’s symptoms could include:

  • slowed disease progression
  • improved movement
  • enhanced quality of life
  • better sleep

Although this experiment involved intensive exercise for approximately four weeks, Calabresi said he believes that constant exercise is not always necessary.

“We found that positive effects of exercise on synaptic plasticity is lasting at least a week after the interruption of motor activity,” he said.

Calabresi explained that brief interruptions in exercise do not seem to influence or change the benefits of exercise, but longer periods of inactivity can, which could promote the importance of exercise in Parkinson’s.

Today, most of the therapies that are available for Parkinson’s disease are based on symptomatic care, and there are currently no medications that have proven effective in changing the course of the condition.

Although medications are geared toward treating the symptoms, non-pharmaceutical approaches can also be taken to help curb the disease.

“Exercise is clearly beneficial in Parkinson’s disease and leads to better short-term and long-term outcomes,” Standaert said.

“Other important measures in managing Parkinson’s disease are ensuring adequate sleep, hydration, and a balanced diet, which incorporates fiber,” he added.

Although exercise is one element in the approach to treating Parkinson’s, a multifaceted approach is necessary in helping to control symptoms and reduce disease progression.

Standaert believes using exercise in both “early stages to more advanced stages,” together with medications, is a beneficial multifactorial way to help control Parkinson’s.

People living with Parkinson’s should “work with [their] physician and use the lowest dose that is effective in restoring the ability to be active,” he continued.

Although it does not take care of all symptoms, exercise rigorously may slow disease progression and is encouraged by all clinicians who work closely with this condition.

“I think our study says that people involved in the care of Parkinson’s disease patients, such as medical doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, and caregivers, should encourage the patients to start or continue [an] active lifestyle and in particular, to focus on aerobic exercises,” Calabresi said.

A new study finds evidence for why intense exercise may help people with Parkinson’s disease decrease their symptoms.

Researchers used rats to find that through exercise, there was preservation and less spread of the Parkinson’s disease-causing aggregates.

As a result, they found exercise helped lower the symptoms and decrease the spread of the disease.

Dr. Rajiv Bahl, MBA, MS, is an emergency medicine physician, board member of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, and health writer. You can find him at RajivBahlMD.