Parkinson's is a brain disease that affects the body and how it moves. Early symptoms include tremors, a shuffling gait, and an overall slowing of physical movement. Yet exercise may be one of the best — and most underutilized — ways of combating the condition, according to the March 2012 Harvard Health Letter.
Several prospective studies that followed tens of thousands of people for many years have shown a correlation between exercise earlier in life and a reduced chance of developing Parkinson's later on. Exercising in your 30s and 40s — decades before Parkinson's typically occurs — may reduce the risk of getting Parkinson's disease by about 30%, notes the Health Letter. Some experts believe the exercise must be vigorous to make a difference. However, because this kind of research can't prove cause and effect, there is the possibility of "reverse causation": that is, exercise may not prevent Parkinson's disease, but instead a very early "preclinical" form of the disease, without clear symptoms, may make people less willing or able to exercise in the first place.
Physical activity is often part of the recommended treatment for Parkinson's, especially early in the disease. Dr. Edward Wolpow, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the Health Letter's editorial board, urges his patients with early Parkinson's to work on building up their strength, balance, and endurance, "because they will be needed later on." People with Parkinson's often receive targeted physical therapy, but they may also benefit from many other types of exercise and overall physical fitness. Exercise — especially if it's aerobic, or gets the heart beating faster — seems to have a protective effect on brain tissue. There are fewer findings specific to Parkinson's, but studies have found that people with the disease who are in good cardiovascular shape score better on thinking and muscle control tests and may live longer.
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