Regular exercise aids balance, eases Parkinson’s motor symptoms

Analysis of previous studies supports benefits, favors sustained participation

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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An illustration of a person exercising at home on a yoga mat.

Regular physical exercise helps to improve balance and mobility in people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease, an analysis of published studies reports.

Best results, in terms of this easing in disease motor symptoms, were seen with “consistent and sustained” participation in exercise sessions.

“The findings of our systematic review and meta-analysis indicate that SDPA [self-directed physical activity] interventions yield favorable outcomes in terms of motor symptoms, gait function, and balance among individuals in the early and mid-stages of [Parkinson’s],” its researchers wrote.

They also “provide evidence in favor of incorporating [exercise] as a non-pharmacological approach for the management of early and mid-stage [Parkinson’s],” the team added.

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Balance, gait gains seen with exercise by Parkinson’s patients in 15 studies

The study, “Self-directed Physical Activity Interventions for Motor Symptoms and Quality of Life in Early and Mid-stage Parkinson’s Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” was published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.

It’s well established that being physically active can provide a range of health benefits, and getting physical exercise is often touted as a critical part of staying healthy while living with Parkinson’s.

A trio of scientists in China conducted a meta-analysis of studies that tested the effects of physical exercise in people with early or moderate Parkinson’s. In a meta-analysis, scientists pool data from multiple previous studies and analyze it collectively; the larger a data pool, the more statistical power that exists to identify meaningful changes.

This meta-analysis included data from 15 previous studies. In each, a group of people with Parkinson’s underwent some sort of exercise intervention — ranging from walking on a treadmill to dance, yoga, or tai chi — while a separate group of patients, acting as controls, underwent a different program with less or no physical activity. The exercise interventions were done anywhere from once a week to five times per week, with each lasting about one month or nearly six months.

Most of the programs were rated as moderate in intensity.

Results showed that, on average, patients who underwent the exercise programs tended to see greater improvements in measures of motor function, such as the timed up-and-go test or the six-minute walk test.

Patients who exercised also tended to have longer, faster steps while walking, and did better on measures of balance after exercise, available data showed. This suggests that exercise interventions “seem to have a positive influence on gait function, potentially improving mobility and reducing fall risk,” the researchers wrote.

Less severe motor symptoms, as evidenced by a decrease in scores on part three of the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS), were reported in patients taking part in exercise programs.

“Our findings indicate a significant improvement in motor symptoms following [exercise] interventions,” the researchers wrote.

Few studies evaluated quality of life changes with exercise and Parkinson’s

Only two of the studies assessed whether the intervention affected patients’ quality of life, and a meta-analyses of their findings showed no significant change in life quality scores. The researchers stressed that it’s hard to make a reliable conclusion given how little data was available for this part of the analysis.

“To draw more definitive conclusions, further research with larger sample sizes and more comprehensive [quality of life] measures is warranted,” they wrote. Studies also are needed into ideal exercise forms, their optimal length of time, and  the longevity of derived benefits.

No notable safety issues were reported with any of the exercise programs. This suggests that “people with mild to moderate [Parkinson’s] may safely engage in” physical exercise, the researchers said, and results overall support exercise as having many benefits for Parkinson’s patients.

“Our findings indicate that interventions of longer duration, consisting of a greater number of sessions, resulted in more significant enhancements in balance among individuals with early and mid-stage” disease, the scientists added. “This underscores the critical role of sustained engagement in [an] exercise program for patients.”