Exercise is good for everyone. But for those with Parkinson’s disease, exercise is a particularly vital part of disease management. Exercise is medicine!
That’s because Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects the way you move. Studies show that regular exercise can help maintain balance, mobility and the ability to perform daily tasks. This means that exercise can help ease Parkinson’s symptoms and may even slow the progression of the disease.
Other benefits of exercise for those with Parkinson’s disease include:
- Building and maintaining muscle strength and endurance
- Improving coordination and gait disturbances, which can help reduce the risk of falling or fear of falling
- Increasing flexibility and range of motion
- Improving cardiovascular fitness, especially heart and lung function
- Boosting the effectiveness of levodopa, which is the most commonly used medication for treating Parkinson’s disease
- Improving cognitive function
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Preventing constipation
- Improving the quality of sleep
But what are some of the best exercises for Parkinson’s disease? From strength and mobility exercises to brain-boosting activities, below we share a range of exercises that can be done right at home.
Types of exercises for Parkinson’s disease
The best exercises for those with Parkinson’s disease are fun, challenging and – above all else – safe.
So, depending on your personal preferences and symptoms, you may choose different exercises to work different motor or cognitive skills. But an ideal exercise program incorporates a variety of activities that include aerobic exercise, strength training, balance skills and flexibility.
How much exercise should you be getting? Recent literature recommends people with Parkinson’s disease work toward a goal of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week.
Aerobic exercises for Parkinson’s disease
Aerobic exercise – which a lot of people just refer to as “cardio” – includes activities that involve continuous, rhythmic movements that increase your heart rate over a span of time.
Aerobic exercise helps improve fitness as a whole and can improve several aspects of motor function. In fact, research shows moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.
One study found, for patients with mild symptom severity, getting 30-45 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week “had an effect similar to that of several conventional Parkinson drugs.”
Types of aerobic exercises include:
- Walking, jogging or running (depending on your level of mobility)
- Swimming or water aerobics
- Cycling or stationary biking
Strength training exercises for Parkinson’s disease
Strength training exercises help build muscle mass, and maintaining strong muscles makes it easier to perform daily activities.
Fitness experts typically recommend strength training exercises that are focused on one muscle group at a time, and alternate focus areas each day. This gives the muscles you’ve worked time to rest, repair and grow stronger, which helps reduce the risk of injury.
For each muscle group, you should perform 10-15 repetitions in 1-3 sets. And each muscle group should be worked on 2-3 times every week – just remember to alternate your days so you’re not working the same muscle group multiple days in a row.
Some examples of strength training exercises for various muscle groups include:
- Bicep curls
- Tricep dips, kickbacks or extensions
- Standard or assisted pull-ups
- Squats or repeated stand-ups from a seated position on a chair
- Leg presses
Balance exercises for Parkinson’s disease
Maintaining balance is especially important to help prevent or reduce the risk of falling. So, in addition to building stronger muscles through strength training, balance and mobility exercises are important for improving stability.
Fall prevention is one of the main goals of balance exercises. That’s why we strongly recommend working with a physical therapist to determine which balance exercises are best for you. Physical therapists will focus on helping you strengthen your ankles and improving your body’s ability to “catch itself” to help prevent falls.
Examples of community programs that also address balance:
- Tai Chi
- Dance classes
Coordination exercises for Parkinson’s disease
When you have Parkinson’s disease, muscle movements slow and decrease in size over time. This can make it more difficult to coordinate more complex movements.
Working on activities that challenge the agility, size and speed of your muscle movements can help improve and maintain motor skills.
Coordination exercises and activities that challenge muscle groups in your lower body include:
- No-contact boxing or other martial arts
When it comes to working your upper body and fine motor skills, a couple helpful hand exercises for Parkinson’s might include:
- Pickups – Choose a small object such as a hairbrush, pencil or coin. Place it on a table in front of you and practice picking it up, gripping it and setting it down with each hand.
- Fingertip touches – Hold your arms up in a relaxed position, with your elbow bent and palms facing out. Slowly bend your index downward to touch your thumb, and then reopen your hand. Repeat with your middle finger, ring finger and pinky.
Some hobbies and activities can also help improve coordination, including:
- Painting or drawing
- Writing a letter
- Gardening and planting
- Sewing, knitting or cross-stitching
- Playing an instrument like the piano or guitar
Exercises to improve cognition challenges with Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder, but it’s also a progressive neurological condition. As the disease progresses, individuals can experience both movement and cognition changes.
Brain-boosting exercises may help improve memory and cognition, and can include:
- Music therapy
- Doing math in your head
- Playing puzzles, board games and word games
- Reading aloud
Working with a physical therapist to create an exercise plan
Physical therapists are experts in getting people moving. While most people think physical therapy is just for rehabbing after an injury, it’s an important part of preventive care and treatment for patients with chronic conditions – like Parkinson’s disease.
Your experience with Parkinson’s disease is unique. A physical therapist can help with Parkinson’s by designing a personalized program for you. They’ll teach you specific exercises to manage your unique symptoms and keep you engaged in activity.
How often should you meet with a physical therapist? Checking in at least once or twice a year can help you develop an exercise plan that fits with your current level of mobility and the season.
How to get started with an exercise plan
Exercise is not only vital for feeling good, but also for slowing the progression of Parkinson’s disease. If you’re not sure how to get started with an exercise routine, here are some tips:
- Meet with a physical therapist – If you’ve never worked with a physical therapist or it’s been more than a year since you’ve seen one, make an appointment. A physical therapist can help build a tailored exercise program just for you. At HealthPartners’ Struthers Parkinson’s Center, we have physical therapists who specialize in developing exercise programs for people with movement disorders.
- Start small and be consistent – Whether you choose short morning walks around the neighborhood or coordination exercises every other day, just get active and do so on a regular basis. Then start adding other enjoyable – and safe – exercises and activities to increase your activity level.
- Take advantage of exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s – From yoga to tai chi, there are exercise classes of all intensity levels. In fact, we offer Parkinson’s exercise classes throughout the month at both of our Struthers Parkinson’s Disease Center locations – in Golden Valley and St. Paul, MN). You’ll not only get the exercise you need, you’ll also meet other people with the disease. We also offer an adult day program with Club Create to stimulate creativity and help improve movement. Call 952-993-5495 for more information on the day program.
- Talk with your neurologist – Depending on your symptoms, progression of your disease and personal preferences, your neurologist or movement specialist can make recommendations for staying active. They can also coordinate care with other specialists, such as a physical therapist, to create a tailored therapy and exercise plan for you.