Exercise Treatment for Parkinson’s Patients Can Be Fun!

What is Parkinson’s?

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects how a person moves. The disease centers around nerve cells in the brain called the basal ganglia and substantia nigra.

Normally, nerve cells in the substantia nigra produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control movement in the body. When the nerve cells begin to stop producing dopamine, symptoms of Parkinson’s such as tremors, slowness, stiffness of movement, and balance problems develop.

The basal ganglia help the body move in a smooth, fluid manner. The loss of dopamine affects how the basal ganglia are stimulated, causing the body to experience uncontrolled movement (such as tremors) and inhibited movement.

The disease affects about 1 million people in the United States and 10 million people worldwide. It usually affects those over 50, but can occur earlier. Men are much more likely to develop Parkinson’s than women.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Parkinson’s?

People with Parkinson’s experience the disease differently. The most common signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Resting tremor: An involuntary shaking that usually begins with the hand or fingers, while at rest.
  • Rigidity: Muscle stiffness in any part of the body that can reduce your range of motion
  • Flexed posture: The way you sit may become affected, with stooped or rounded shoulders, or leaning forward of your head or body in a hunched over fashion.
  • Gait abnormalities: Because Parkinson’s affects muscle movement, there are many ways it can affect how you walk. It may cause any or all of the following changes to your gait:
    • Shuffling: The feet do not properly move from heel to toe, causing a shuffling movement
    • Freezing: A sudden inability to move
    • Festination: Small, quick, involuntary steps forward
    • Decreased stride length: Your steps may become less spaced apart
    • Decreased balance: An inability to maintain balance, leading to falls
    • Micrographia: Writing can become more difficult

Exercise Treatment for Parkinson’s: Evidence-Based and Creative

Research has shown that exercise is an important part of any treatment program for those with Parkinson’s. It helps to maintain flexibility, improve balance, and range of motion. It can also slow the progression of the disease.

One challenge of an exercise program is it can be difficult to maintain, especially if it is tedious or boring. The good news is that many types of fun and interesting exercise programs can be helpful. Here are three exercises worth exploring.

Tai Chi

People with Parkinson’s are at much greater risk of falling, due to the problems it creates with balance and gait. In fact, falling is the number one cause of emergency room visits for people suffering from the disease.

A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Tai Chi was very effective in improving balance and reducing falls. It also resulted in slower rates of decline in overall motor control for patients practicing the exercise twice a week.

Why is it so effective? Bill Douglas of the World Tai Chi and Quigong Day explains how Tai Chi is different from other types of exercises. Tai Chi movements rotate the body in about 95 percent of the ways a body is able to move.

This is a much higher percentage than any other form of exercise. With Tai Chi, patients continue to practice more movements, which slows the loss of their ability to do so.


Dance is more than a form of exercise. People engage in all forms of dance for pure enjoyment, to experience and express emotions, and to challenge themselves. It requires participants to learn certain movements or steps.

These qualities have proven to be very effective as a form of exercise for Parkinson’s patients. One well-known program is Dance for PD, which offers specialized dance programs for those with Parkinson’s. Classes can be found in over 100 communities and 16 countries.

People with Parkinson’s who regularly attend dance classes report improvement in walking and fine motor skills, as well as an uplift in mood. The social aspect of dance classes is another important benefit they experience. Dance involves working on flexibility, extension, and moving with intention, which are all elements helpful to those with Parkinson’s.

Rock Steady Boxing

Begun in 2006 by Scott C. Newman, who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at age 40, along with his friend Vincent Perez, a former boxer, Rock Steady Boxing classes can be found throughout the U.S.

The work-outs are low-impact (and non-contact) but challenging. Largely adapted from boxing drills, the exercises work on agility, speed, muscular endurance, footwork, and hand-eye coordination.

Participants have reported improvements in walking, balance, performance of daily activities as well as their quality of life. Classes also promote a sense of community and comradery, which helps combat depression and feelings of isolation.

Optimal Results With a Physical Therapy Exercise Treatment for Parkinson’s

Physical therapy and exercise can help people with Parkinson’s both slow and even reverse many of the symptoms of the disease. The goal is to achieve the following:

  • Increased range of motion
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Improved balance
  • Improved gait pattern

Working with a physical therapist in conjunction with a robust exercise program can help patients achieve the best results for combating the symptoms of Parkinson’s. A physical therapist can help you work on specific movement goals. These can include broad goals, such as walking or improving balance, or specific movements, such as getting in and out of a chair or using stairs.

If you are interested in learning more about an exercise treatment for Parkinson’s or how physical therapy can help you, contact us at Cawley Physical Therapy and Rehab. We have five convenient locations for serving both Lackawanna and Luzerne counties.

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