How to Start Exercising After a Parkinson’s Disease Diagnosis
Terry Ellis is the director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation at Boston University (BU) College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College, and works extensively with patients living with Parkinson’s disease. She answers our questions about why and how exercise can improve the quality of life for patients.
Why is exercise beneficial after a diagnosis of PD?
Exercise improves physical mobility, daily function, and quality of life for people living with PD. We see changes in the brain and body that are positive and beneficial.
What types of exercises have proven to be beneficial for people living with PD?
Aerobic exercise is one really important type of exercise. Studies have shown that people who participated in a high-intensity aerobic exercise program right after diagnosis had less severe motor signs than people who had usual care. We don’t know if it’s an effect on symptoms or disease modifying, but we can say aerobic exercise—such as brisk walking, stationary biking, or using the elliptical machine—is beneficial. Strengthening exercise, like lifting weights or body-weight exercises, is another vital component. And early balance training—whether balance exercises or activities like tai chi and yoga—tends to improve balance and decreases fall frequency in people with PD.
How do you recommend sedentary people begin an exercise program?
For people who are not exercising, it really involves more of a lifestyle change. People with Parkinson’s disease and other conditions can see a physical therapist if they are interested in starting an exercise program. What we physical therapists do is talk to patients about how we can help them integrate exercise into their daily lives and discover what is going to be successful for them. We can also advise them on how much exercise to do and the appropriate “dose.” We gradually introduce various aspects of exercise into people’s lives.
What’s the best exercise plan for PD patients?
The best exercise is the one that they will actually do. It’s crucial to be physically active in day-to-day life and to get in frequent bouts of activity. People with PD tend to be more sedentary than others their age. So, don’t sit for long periods of time, consider parking farther away from the store, or take a walk around the block.
When should you start exercising or see a physical therapist (PT)?
We advise that people with PD should see a physical therapist at diagnosis. It’s at this point that exercise is really a key component, and starting early can be very important. PD is a chronic progressive disease that people learn to live with, so just as they go to a neurologist for medication adjustments, they should go to their PT every six months for exercise adjustments. We’ll look at what’s changed as part of their disease progression and modify their routine accordingly.
What will the PT specifically do?
A PT can design and personalize a program tailored to each patient’s profile. We will also make sure that the patient is working at a high enough intensity, that the quality of movement is optimized during exercise, and that it’s done safely. A PT will provide task-specific training, such as working on gait, walking, bed mobility, and standing up from a chair.
How do you advise that people find a PT?
It’s really important to find a physical therapist with expertise in PD. Just as doctors specialize, so do PTs. Ask your doctor, or call BU’s national exercise helpline at 1-888-606-1688.