The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease make exercise difficult, but it’s not impossible. Having Parkinson’s shouldn’t prevent you from staying active. In fact, engaging in physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your body.

Exercise can improve your overall health, and relieve some of your Parkinson’s symptoms. Working out regularly helps:

  • strengthen your heart
  • improve your mood
  • boost your memory
  • decrease muscle stiffness
  • improve your sleep
  • maintain balance, strength, flexibility, and mobility
  • prevent falls

Exercise also protects the brain cells (neurons) that produce dopamine and helps your brain use your existing dopamine stores more efficiently. A lack of this chemical produces the jerky movements that are hallmarks of Parkinson’s.

If you’re newly diagnosed, being active might slow the progression of your disease. One study found that people with early-stage Parkinson’s who did high-intensity exercises three times a week were able to stall the progression of their disease for six months.

The best exercises for Parkinson’s disease

Any exercise program can be helpful for Parkinson’s if you like it enough to practice it regularly. Find a workout you enjoy so you’ll stick with it.

Research finds that the ideal program for people with Parkinson’s combines aerobics — exercises that increase your heart rate and breathing — with mentally challenging activities. For example, a dance or aerobics class that changes rhythm and teaches you dance steps challenges both your mental skills and aerobic capacity.

Aerobic exercise is also good for your well-being. A review of nearly a dozen studies found that people with Parkinson’s who participated in aerobic training had an improved quality of life and less depression.

Certain aerobic exercise programs, in particular, could be helpful for Parkinson’s symptoms. One study found that taking a tango dance class twice a week improved balance, motor symptoms, and walking speed in people with Parkinson’s.

Other examples of beneficial aerobic exercise programs for people with Parkinson’s include:

  • walking on the treadmill, changing the pace and incline regularly
  • a dance-exercise class like Jazzercise or Zumba
  • mind-body programs like tai chi and yoga
  • tennis or volleyball
  • swimming using different strokes (breaststroke, butterfly, etc.)

Also, incorporate resistance training or strengthening into your routine. You can lift light weights, or do body-resistance exercises like push-ups and squats. And don’t forget to stretch several times a week to keep your muscles limber and maintain your flexibility.

When to work out

Everyone — those with Parkinson’s and those without — should exercise for at least 150 minutes a week. That boils down to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. During aerobic exercise sessions, make sure that your heart is beating at about 70 to 80 percent of its maximum capacity.

The longer you stick with your exercise program, the more benefits you’re likely to see. People who participate in programs lasting longer than six months experience more gains in balance and mobility than those enrolled in programs for only a few weeks, research finds.

The ideal time to work out is when your muscles are flexible and limber. Coordinate your workout sessions with your medication dosing. Most people who are on levodopa or other Parkinson’s drugs reach their peak flexibility about one hour after taking their medicine.

Exercising safely

If exercise is new to you or you’ve recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, check with your neurologist or primary care provider before starting. Get a fitness assessment, and make sure the program you’ve chosen is safe for you.

As you start a new exercise program, remember that Parkinson’s can make you less steady on your feet. To prevent a fall, avoid activities that require a lot of balance, like cycling or rock climbing. If you want to ride a bike, use a stationary or recumbent model.

Although weight training is good for maintaining muscle mass, it can increase stiffness if you use too much weight or do the exercises incorrectly. Ask your doctor to recommend a physical therapist (PT) who has experience working with people who have movement disorders. The PT can show you the proper form for each exercise, and help you choose a weight that’s appropriate to your ability.

Take time to warm up before you start exercising, and cool down afterward. If you exercised before your diagnosis, double the amount of warm-up and cool-down time you used to do. Cool down slowly after your workouts, taking each of your muscles through its full range of motion.

Finally, know your limits. Never work out to the point of pain. If an exercise is too difficult for you to do, or it hurts, stop.

To find a fitness program that’s designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s disease, call the Parkinson’s Foundation Hotline at (800) 4PD-INFO (473-4636).