Get fit to fight Parkinson’s

Exercise is important to all of us, but for those at risk of contracting Parkinson’s disease – or already diagnosed with the illness – it is essential.

As the Michael J Fox Foundation advises: “Everyone with Parkinson’s should exercise. It’s important for general health and wellbeing and can ease motor and non-motor symptoms …”

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurological disease in Australia after dementia, with more than 80,000 sufferers and 38 people diagnosed with the condition every day. On World Parkinson’s Day, we felt it timely to share the latest findings about the disease. Research finds that staying active improves sleep, strengthens muscles and joints, reduces stress and depression, and assists balance. Exercise helps manage Parkinson’s symptoms, including tremors, and issues with flexibility, grip strength, motor coordination, posture and stiffness.

Anyone undertaking a fitness program to confront this disease must consult a physical therapist or physiotherapist to evaluate their exercise options based on their level of fitness and the severity of their symptoms. The experts will offer Parkinson’s-specific workouts mixing cardiovascular workouts with balance, strength and rhythmic exercises.

But no matter the exercise regime, starting and sticking to a program remains the biggest challenge.

So, here are some hints on how to turn good intentions into lasting fitness.

Make it fun
Any exercise is better than none. And if the thought of pushing weights around a loud, sweaty gym horrifies you, or you’ve never considered yourself athletic, don’t be put off. Even if you’ve never exercised, it’s not too late. With professional guidance, you can still gain vital benefits from exercise. The trick is to choose an activity you enjoy. Parkinson’s-friendly options include cycling, walking, swimming, tai chi, yoga, boxing, and dancing. Get a dog. Take up gardening. Mix your activity with music or even TV, if you’re using a treadmill.

Your aim is to make healthy habits part of your everyday life. If your workout is unpleasant, you won’t stick with it. Don’t compare yourself to super-fit examples you can’t emulate. Sift through all the advice available and find what suits you and ensures you will persist.

Start small, be realistic
Most workout guides quote the minimum adult fitness recommendation: 150 minutes a week, comprised of five 30-minute sessions, plus two weight-strengthening sessions. A worthy goal, but if you don’t achieve such lofty totals immediately, don’t be discouraged.

As fitness expert Richard Talens puts it: “You’re not lazy, you’re just starting from zero … The truth is running a mile for a couch potato is far more difficult and requires more physical and mental will than it does for someone who does five every day.”

Don’t be too hard on yourself; there will be days you miss your planned activity. Start with small, achievable goals, gain confidence from achieving them and visualise the satisfaction of the same occurring at your next target. If you are starting from scratch, 10-minute sessions are realistic. Move past setbacks rather than viewing them as signs of weakness.

Use ‘triggers’ to embed activity in your routine. Triggers are cues that create an automatic reaction, so there’s nothing to think about or decide on. An example is the morning alarm clock – you hear it and go for a walk first thing. Leave your running shoes or weights by the front door. Add triggers to your daily environment to normalise exercise.

And don’t fall for the ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset. Stephanie Mansour, fitness guru to the stars, says when unrealistic standards aren’t met, exercisers can feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Structure is good, but flexibility is also important. “Ten minutes is better than five, and five minutes is better than zero.”

When the idea of a workout seems too hard, do 30 seconds or one minute. Reduce your workout into manageable chunks. You’ll then do more.

Reward yourself
Celebrate your small triumphs. Even before you achieve main goals, recognise your progress. Track it with a journal or phone app. When you achieve your planned outcome, mark it on a calendar. Take pride in every step forward.

Eventually, your reward will be better sleep, increased energy, and a greater sense of well-being. At the outset, immediate, minor rewards help sustain your momentum. They can be as small as a hot bath or a cup of coffee after your exercise is completed. After all, research suggests that exercise helps the brain use dopamine more effectively. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for movement. It also controls the brain’s reward and pleasure mechanisms. PD reduces dopamine levels.

Ideas to get you moving
Exercise during commercial breaks: If you’re a couch potato, incorporate some activity into the gaps in your TV programs. Every push-up or stretch helps.

Go high-tech: Get a pedometer and count the walking you add to your daily life. Ditch the car and take the lift. Consult the kids and take up sports video games, which can move your body more than you expect.

Right where you’re sitting now: If you have a sedentary job or you’re housebound (hello, self-isolators), consider the range of exercises you can undertake without weights, pulleys, parks, balls or gizmos. Some are as simple as making your shoulder blades touch the back of your chair.

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Related articles:
Early warning signs for Parkinson’s disease
How to recognise Parkinson’s disease
Researchers make important Parkinson’s breakthrough

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Will Brodie

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