Research published in Neurology suggests that regular, moderate exercise, such as walking briskly, can help to improve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, the chronic motor system disorder.

Parkinson’s disease affects around 1 million people in the US, and 4-6 million people worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that complications from Parkinson’s disease are the 14th leading cause of death in the country.

Parkinson’s disease mainly affects people over the age of 50. The main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are trembling, limb rigidity, slowness of movement and impaired balance. As the disease progresses, these symptoms become more pronounced and eventually these symptoms can interfere with day to day life.

Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, though medication and treatment can relieve the disease’s symptoms. A new study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, may have found another method of symptom relief to add to the list.

The researchers examined 60 people aged 50-80 with Parkinson’s disease to see what effects aerobic walking would have on the symptoms of the disease. They also wanted to find out if a program of moderate intensity exercise was beneficial, safe and tolerable.

Participants were asked to take part in 45-minute sessions of moderate intensity walking, three times a week for 6 months. The participants would wear heart rate monitors during this exercise, and would also take tests to measure their aerobic fitness, memory, mood, motor functions and thinking abilities.

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It is recommended that healthy adults aged 18-65 carry out 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week, such as walking briskly.

The walking sessions met the definition of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, with the average walking speed approximately 2.9 miles per hour and with participants exercising at 47% of their heart rate reserve.

The research was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Center for Research Resources, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Charles W. and Harriet J. Seedorff Family and the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers found that the brisk walking sessions resulted in the following improvements:

  • Motor function and mood: 15% improvement
  • Attention/response control: 14% improvement
  • Tiredness: 11% reduction
  • Aerobic fitness and gait speed: 7% increase.

In the motor functioning tests, there was an average improvement of 2.8 points among the participants, a score that is deemed to be a clinically important difference.

Study author Dr. Ergun Y. Uc, of the University of Iowa in Iowa City and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center of Iowa City, says that results suggest “walking may provide a safe and easily accessible way of improving the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and quality of life.”

People with mild-moderate Parkinson’s who do not have dementia and are able to walk independently without a cane or walker can safely follow the recommended exercise guidelines for healthy adults, which includes 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity, and experience benefits.”

This study has its limitations. The range of participants in the research is a relatively small number, and the study did not run for a particularly long period of time. Without a control group to draw comparison with, it is unknown as to whether other factors could have influenced the findings.

The authors admit that further studies will be required in order to confirm these results. They state that future directions and challenges for this area of research include conducting controlled and longer-term studies, and investigating the effects of different types of personal training.

As a disease currently without a cure, it is vital that research continues in this field, with the hope of improving treatment methods for what is a difficult condition for both doctors and patients to grapple with.

Previously, Medical News Today reported on a study that found that a capacity to self-repair located in some parts of the brain may be able to help preserve brain function in diseases such as Parkinson’s.