High-intensity Parkinson’s protection

With our population getting older by the day, we’re starting to see more and more of the diseases associated with old age — Parkinson’s disease, or PD, among them.

This neurodegenerative disease is progressive and incurable. And there hasn’t been much to do about it — save for some problematic drugs.

That’s what makes this latest finding so incredible. Though if you’ve been a reader of mine for any length of time, it won’t surprise you at all.

According to a new study, high-intensity exercise may be able to stall the progression of symptoms in newly diagnosed PD patients — safely, effectively, and without any medication.

SPARX — the Study in Parkinson’s Disease of Exercise — featured 128 patients, all with new onset PD. Each patient was assigned to follow one of three regimens for six months: high-intensity exercise four days a week, moderate-intensity exercise four days a week, or simply maintaining their typical exercise habits.

This study was done using a treadmill, which I personally hate. (Could a workout get more monotonous or boring?) But I’m sure that any high-intensity exercise would achieve the same results these researchers discovered.

And this is what they found: Among patients following a high-intensity exercise regimen, the average change in motor score (according to the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale, or UPDRS) was a mere .3. (Motor scores give a more balanced picture of how a person is affected by Parkinson’s. So in this case, a lower score is better.)

That’s compared with a motor score change of 3.2 in the “usual care” group and a 2.0 score found in the moderate-intensity group. Which means that high-intensity exercise won this particular face-off by a pretty dramatic margin.

It’s not the first study to suggest the benefits of exercise for Parkinson’s, either. Previous research shows that exercise can reduce fall frequency and improve gait, balance, muscle strength, and quality of life in PD patients.

But this is the first study to look at how exercise intensity affects that benefit. And given the fact that most of the aging baby boomers I know are big exercisers, these latest findings are especially promising.

Just as a refresher, high-intensity exercise is any activity that brings you to 80 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. The “talk test” is a good way to tell where you’re at — with vigorous activity, you shouldn’t be able to say more than a few words without taking a breath.

Medium-intensity exercise is defined as 60 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. So you would be able to carry on a conversation. But you’re breathing hard enough that you couldn’t sing a song.

In other words, a medium-intensity workout is one that most everyone can manage. And while the benefits may not have been statistically significant in this particular study, doing something is always better than doing nothing.

A harder workout may be a better workout — and I still recommend 20 to 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise three times a week for all of us, and especially for those with PD. But everyone has to start somewhere.

The important thing, as always, is simply that you get up off your couch and start.