Exercise Improves Depression in People with Parkinson's
Credit: Exercise equipment via Shutterstock

Dr. Ariane Park is a movement disorder neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Not only can exercise help with the motor symptoms of Parkinson's disease, but a new pilot study that I recently completed showed that patient participation in exercise — in earlier stages of the disease — can improve depression in patients. The study, at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, also found that long-term group exercise programs are feasible for people with Parkinson's disease.

It is not clear how exercise improves depression, however one theory is that it may reduce inflammation in the central nervous system, and thus promote resilience in neurons.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects more than one million Americans. Each year, about 60,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Symptoms of Parkinson's disease worsen over time, despite the best intervention with medication and/or surgery. Therefore, any approach that can maximize function and improve quality of life is important.

In this pilot study, my colleagues and I randomly assigned thirty-one patients with Parkinson's disease to an "early start group" or a "delayed start group" for a rigorous, formal, group exercise program that met for one hour, three days a week. The exercise program was led by a personal trainer.

The early start group exercised for a total of 48 weeks, while the delayed start group exercised only the last 24 weeks of the study. The first 12 weeks of the study included exercises for cardiovascular and core strength, joint integrity and a formal weight-training plan. This continued during the second cycle of 12 weeks, but in weeks 15-24, weight intensity increased. The cycles were identical for each group.

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During cardiovascular training, trainers encouraged each participant to achieve 75 percent to 85 percent of their maximum heart rate for a one-minute interval during a one-hour exercise period three times each week. A registered nurse was in attendance during each exercise session to ensure participant safety.

What our research team discovered is that the patients were not only committed to this long-term group exercise program, but they enjoyed exercising. The results also showed that earlier participation in a group exercise program significantly improved symptoms of depression, and this is important because depression in Parkinson's disease can be more debilitating than motor symptoms. More than 50 percent of patients with Parkinson's disease suffer from depression, which is why it is important to help patients find new ways to cope and improve their symptoms.

One of the things we had also hoped to show with this study was that exercise could slow the progression of Parkinson's disease, but the study did not provide strong evidence of any "neuroprotective" effect on motor function, possibly because of the small sample size.

I encourage all Parkinson's patients to exercise. Do what you like to do, whether it's walking or swimming or weight lifting — any routine that improves your physical fitness is good for your disease. As long as you keep your body moving on a regular basis, you will move better and feel better.

Note: If you would like to read more about the study, the findings are published online in the journal Parkinsonism and Related Disorders.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.