Is there a positive relationship between Parkinson’s disease and exercise?

Yes! Just ask Elena Quiros.

Quiros was running a half-marathon in 2012—her third half in 4 months—and she just couldn’t move fast enough to meet the cut-off time for being “swept.” That’s when the race officials need to reopen the streets and shuttle the remaining runners to the finish. “I was so mad,” she remembers. “I could see the cut-off point, but I just couldn’t reach it.”

She later noticed a trembling in her hand and brought it up as “by-the-way” in her next doctor’s appointment. Her primary care physician referred her to a neurologist and, soon, she got her diagnosis. Quiros had Parkinson’s disease.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” she says. But she learned fast, and it was a tough lesson.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

According to the American Parkinson Disease Association, Parkinson’s is a chronic neurological movement disorder. It worsens over time, and there is no cure. Symptoms include tremors, muscle stiffness or rigidity, bradykinesia (slowness of movement), and nonmotor symptoms, including digestive problems, insomnia, anxiety, depression and fatique.

Quiros has in fact, suffered with many of these symptoms, but the progress of her disease has been meditated by the thing that first brought it to her attention: Exercise.

Can Personal Trainers Help? 

“Exercise is key,” Quiros says. Although she, like many Parkinson’s patients, takes dopamine to ease symptoms, she has found that “you have to keep moving; it makes all the difference.”

That offers hope for patients—and an opportunity for trainers to work with a group of clients who truly need them.

Is There a Market?

There is. The APDA estimates that there are more than 1 million people in the United States living with Parkinson’s disease; more than 10 million worldwide.

And every national Parkinson’s organization endorses exercise to help patients thrive.

The Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s, for instance, has found that “regular physical exercise can improve mobility and coordination, boost your mood, reduce stiffness, minimize soreness and fatigue and may even slow down the progression of Parkinson’s itself.”

The Foundation recommends a combination of aerobic or cardiovascular activity, flexibility and stretching, strength training, balance and fine movement control, and weight-bearing exercises.

See also: The Top 10 Corrective Exercises

Sound like programming that’s right up your alley? There’s still more to know!

How to Get Started Linking Parkinson’s Disease and Exercise

Because Parkinson’s disease clients have special needs, trainers need special training, too. Just ask Bobby Kelly, finalist for the IDEA 2021 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. When he first met Parkinson’s patient Buddy Linder, Kelly was hesitant to take him on as a client.  “He was not in great shape—in a wheelchair and already losing his ability to speak,” Kelly remembers. “I initially told his wife, ‘no’.”

But programs at the local Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, part of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, were full, and the Linders needed help. Kelly thought about it and developed a game plan—for himself and for Linder.

Step one, says Kelly, is “do your research.” That meant contacting the Center and learning everything he could. The Center’s stance on exercise is clear: “We strongly encourage people with Parkinson’s disease to include exercise in their treatment plan,” and they recommend training in boxing, dance, yoga and tai chi.

Wait. Boxing? Oh, yes.

How Boxing Helps Parkinson’s Disease Clients

Reid Health in Indiana is the first hospital affiliate for Rock Steady Boxing, a program that uses noncontact boxing-inspired fitness routines so “participants can dramatically improve their ability to live independent lives.”

Emerging research supports the idea. As reported on reidhealth.org and published in Physical Therapy, the study “followed a few boxers in the Rock Steady Boxing Foundation [and] found that all boxers who followed through on 12 weeks of training saw improvements in their symptoms. The study tracked balance, gait, quality of life and disability.

“Those who stuck with the training for 24 or even 36 weeks saw sustained improvement in their symptoms. Even boxers who worked out less often after the initial 12 weeks continued to improve. Participants with moderate to severe Parkinson’s took a little longer than those with milder symptoms to see changes, but their dedication paid off a few weeks later.”

Putting Research Into Practice

Kelly and Linder saw profound improvements, as well. Part of their success involved the multitasking that boxing entails, as well as its ability to strengthen cognitive skills. Kelly, for instance, would ask Linder to yell the moves “jab, cross, hook” as he was performing them. It not only helped with the vocal challenges of Parkinson’s, but it also helped make the whole experience more fun.

Through boxing and other innovative exercises—standing on one leg and throwing a basketball, for instance—Kelly was able to help Linder get out of the wheelchair and improve his balance and coordination.

The two worked together for 3 years before Parkinson’s left Linder unable to continue, but “we were able to get him 3 years that he wouldn’t have had,” says Kelly. “It’s all about improved life quality.”

Quiros understands. She is committed to exercise and walking 4–5 miles most days. She boxes, as well, at the Rock Steady Boxing Downtown San Diego center. Under the guidance of NASM-certified trainer Mike Reeder, Quiros has been focusing on skills she needs to slow the progression of her disease. The footwork in boxing, she says, is crucial in fall prevention, and the support she gets from the group has been powerful.

Still, Quiros points out that it was hard to find a program close to her, and she knows that others in her community could use the help. And although she says her marathon days are behind her, she’s grateful for the foundation that running gave her—and certain that exercise is what made her progression manageable.

“It’s been almost 10 years since I’ve been diagnosed,” she says, smiling. “And I’m okay.”

For more information on research connecting Parkinson’s treatment and exercise, including Effects of physical exercise programs on cognitive function in Parkinson’s disease patients: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials of the last 10 years, visit the The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research at michaeljfox.org.

See also: Daily Skills Training for a Parkinson’s Patient