Skip to Content

Part 1: Exercise as Treatment for Neurological Conditions


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.