The Benefits of Exercise for People with Parkinson’s Disease

A leading Parkinson’s disease specialist at Mayo Clinic says there is increasing evidence that ongoing vigorous exercise may slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

If you’re not familiar with Parkinson’s disease, it’s a chronic and progressive movement disorder that affects about one million people in this country. According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, the cause is unknown, but involves vital neurons in the brain that no longer function properly or have died. There is no cure right now, but symptoms can be managed with medication and/or surgery.

Parkinson’s disease symptoms

  • Tremor of the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face
  • Slow movement or bradykinesia
  • Rigid, stiff limbs and trunk
  • Unstable balance and coordination

Parkinson’s disease exercise program
Since last March, twice a week Conner Moore and Charlie Miller, who both have Parkinson’s disease, having been traveling together from Saco to participate in a Parkinson’s exercise program at the Medically Oriented Gym (the M.O.G.) on Foden Road in South Portland.

Conner Moore

The M.O.G., which is affiliated with Saco Bay Physical Therapy, caters to people who need supervised medical support when they exercise. Everyone has an individualized exercise program, but generally participates in a small group class. “It might be that they have pulmonary disease, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, or are a fall risk,” explains Jaclyn Morrill-Chadbourne, a clinical exercise physiologist and co-owner. “The M.O.G. is for anyone who can’t go to just any facility. We offer specific times when they come in and one of our staff members is dedicated specifically to them and takes them through their individualized exercise program.

Jim Cavanaugh, a professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of New England, approached the M.O.G. about developing the Parkinson’s program Charlie and Conner attend. It’s designed for people at all levels of the disease and offers a wide variety of activities that focus on balance, flexibility, muscular strength and endurance.

Charlie Miller

Charlie has had Parkinson’s a lot longer than Conner, so his symptoms are more noticeable. He shuffles when he walks and his arms and hands tremble. “My tremor has really progressed in the last four years,” says. He was diagnosed 15 years ago.

Conner, who is a retired pediatrician, says symptoms differ from person to person. He diagnosed himself in 2010 after noticing that his handwriting was deteriorating. “When I looked at some of my check stubs back to ’07,” he explains, “there was something going on, and then I noticed that I wasn’t moving as fluidly. Little twitches were a red flag too, five years ago.””

He says he’s now moving better and hiking better. “I think my balance is better,” he adds. “I think a lot of the things we do here I can do at home on days I’m not at the gym, such as balancing and stretching. I probably wouldn’t do it as much at home if I weren’t in the program, so I think it’s very helpful and motivating.”

“When I started, I could hardly walk because my balance was so bad,” says Charlie. “I’ve gotten to the point that I’m walking and using the treadmill under supervision at the M.O.G. and I really feel pretty good about it.” He also feels good enough to work on an 18 x 12 foot model train layout — his second. Pretty amazing, considering he’s handling a lot of intricate, miniature structures.

Charlie Miller’s trains

Participating in the Parkinson’s exercise program doesn’t benefit just Charlie and Conner and the other members. They are also participating in an 8-week research project being conducted by the M.O.G. and UNE.  The goal is to publish their findings, which already are promising. “Our current data, which is still in the collection phase,” says Jaclyn, “suggests that those individuals participating in a regular exercise program at least 2x/week have little to no progression in their Parkinson’s symptoms over 1 year.”

Jaclyn Morrill-Chadbourne, MA, Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Co-owner of the M.O.G.

Removing barriers
Another goal says Jaclyn, is to create a Parkinson’s certification program so that qualified individuals and facilities can provide similar exercise programs in their communities. “We need to remove as many barriers as possible so people are able to do programs such as this,” she says. “Financial barriers, geographical barriers transportation barriers — all of those things, because we know that people get better.”

Unfortunately, participating in a Parkinson’s exercise class isn’t covered by insurance. The Maine Chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association has been able to provide some funding to participants, but M.O.G. intends to continue collecting data over the next five years to “demonstrate to insurance companies that this is a valid and reliable service that warrants reimbursement.”

The M.O.G. is also trying to make the same point to health care providers, employers and individuals. “The moment they get a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or heart disease, for instance,” says Jaclyn, ” a lot of people think about what they can no longer do, or how much worse they will be in five to ten years. We’re trying to change that. You don’t have to get worse, you can get better, because exercise is such a powerful tool.”