For over two decades, Daniel Corcos has researched Parkinson’s disease. During his studies he spent the majority of the past decade focusing on the effects of exercise.

Corcos, a professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained:

“It became obvious several years ago that exercise really was good for people with Parkinson’s disease. Not only is it good for the heart, the brain, and muscles in the same way it is for healthy people, it also modifies signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.”

At present, Corcos is co-leading a study funded by a four-year, $3 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders. The aim of the study is to assess the benefits of aerobic exercise in controlling symptoms in individuals recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in April, 2012, Corcos will present findings from the study. Results from the study show that 2 years of weight training can considerably and progressively enhance motor symptoms of the disease, compared to exercises that produced no improvement after 6 months, such as balancing and stretching.

According to Corcos, long-term weight training could be regarded as a vital component in managing the disease.

In the new study, Corcos, and co-researcher Margaret Schenkman of the University of Colorado-Denver, will assign individuals recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease to 1 of 3 groups:

  • Participants in the first group will continue at their current activity level
  • Those in the second group will engage in 30 minutes of endurance exercise on a treadmill 4x per week – at between 60-65% of maximum heart rate
  • Participants in the third group will engage in a more vigorous workout- at between 80-85% of their maximum heart rate

Corcos, explained:

“Our first aim is just to test the feasibility of whether they can exercise at both the moderate and high dose (rates). Then we’ll ask, does exercise at one or the other dose modify symptoms of the disease?”

One fourth of the study participants will be enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, a quarter will be enrolled at the University of Colorado-Denver, and half of the study participants will be enrolled at Rush University Medical Center.

Although drugs, such as levodopa, generally demonstrate initial effectiveness in treating symptoms of the disease, these benefits tend to wear off within 5 years of the patient taking them, and by 90% after 10 years. As participants in Corcs’ and Schenkman’s study will be newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they will not have started any medication treatment.

The researchers will use a clinical measurement tool called the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale, and document how each of the three groups manages symptoms, such as rigidity, abnormal postural reflexes, slow movement and tremor.

If results from the study show that a particular level of endurance exercise weakens symptoms, the team plan a new study-phase to study whether exercise is really neuro-protective. Although further studies are needed, evidence indicates that exercise can be effective therapy.

Corcos, said:

“Any treatment that reduces the amount of medication is beneficial to a patient, because they’ll get a longer and better response from their medication. The goal of our work is to help Parkinson’s disease patients lead a better life until a cure is found.”

Written by Grace Rattue