There are plenty of beneficial reasons to be physically active. We know
that regular exercise is a vital part of living a healthy and balanced
life, and even in aiding in the prevention of disease. Getting out and
moving our bodies can help us stay fit while boosting our mood with “feel
good” hormones that are released by the brain during physical activity.
Exercise has also proven to lower blood pressure and greatly reduce the
risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. If that’s
not enough reason to get up and get moving, here’s one more: physical
activity promotes beneficial changes in the brain that may help memory,
cognitive function and motor skills.
That’s right. Exercise not only benefits our bodies physically, but
mentally as well.
If exercise has the capability to prevent and potentially reverse certain
diseases of the body, can it not act as the same kind of preventative
medicine for the brain? The majority of otherwise healthy people associate
exercise with “getting in shape,” but for those suffering
from a neurological disorder, promising new research shifts the focus
to exercising for specific brain benefits.
Regular exercise is associated with the increased production of growth
factors, chemicals that affect the health of existing brain cells and
the survival of new ones, and an actual increase in volume in the selected
brain regions that control thinking and memory. Indirectly, exercise positively
affects cognitive function by knocking out some of the biggest factors
contributing to cognitive impairment: stress, depression, and lack of sleep.
In addition, one of the biggest correlations that have been found over
time is the undeniably positive effects exercise has had on those suffering
from Parkinson’s disease. Motor neurons in the brain are affected
by this condition, causing them to produce insufficient amounts of dopamine,
a type of chemical messenger that transmits signals of movement, causing
changes in gait, balance, coordination, and overall motor function of
the affected person. A cure does not yet exist for this disorder, but
regardless of what state of the disease a person is in, as they start
exercising they are likely to experience benefits, and may even slow the
progression of the disease.
So how does exercise benefit people with Parkinson’s? And what type
of exercise is best?
As mentioned, during exercise the brain releases a chemical called Dopamine
that is responsible for feelings of pleasure as well as starting movement,
a deficiency of which constitutes the movement problems that are encountered
with Parkinson’s disease. Studies have shown that after exercising,
the brain is able to use dopamine more efficiently, and many people with
Parkinson’s report that they feel and move better after physical activity.
In studies, Parkinson’s disease symptoms were reduced by walking
outside or on a treadmill, light weight lifting, balance and gait training,
Tai Chi, and dancing. All of the above were shown to improve overall motor
function in areas such as coordination, balance, walking speed and quality,
posture, and tremor. With the improvement of these motor functions also
comes the reduced risk of falls, which can be common for Parkinson’s
disease sufferers as symptoms worsen.
Brian Grant, a 12-year veteran of the NBA, who was diagnosed with Early
Onset Parkinson’s at age 36, discovered in his personal interactions
with others that those who were proactively exercising were doing remarkably
better than those who were not or not consistently incorporating physical
activity into their daily routines. His experiences culminated with the
realization that the only two factors that are controllable in fighting
Parkinson’s disease (not unlike any other neurological disorder)
are nutrition and exercise. He has made it his life’s goal to educate
as many as he can about the benefits of nutrition and exercise as neurological
treatments, ultimately creating The Brian Grant Foundation to encourage
and empower people with Parkinson’s to be proactive in their care.
The thing to remember with exercise is that anyone can do it, and it’s
never too late. Though the preference would be to start as early on after
diagnosis as possible (and even before diagnosis for that matter), benefits
can and will be seen at all stages, and the opportunity to improve your
quality of life lies in your capable hands.