A Correlation Between Heavy Exercise and Parkinson’s Disease

Most people have grown up learning about the many benefits of exercise. Working out burns calories, reduces the risk of heart disease, improves sleep quality, helps the body manage blood sugar and insulin levels, improves mental health, mood and more. The list goes on and on as far as the eye can see. What most people haven’t grown up learning, however, is that researchers are only beginning to get a more complete picture of exercise’s medicinal benefits.

Earlywine Park YMCA member, Carlene Hammonds, began to research ways to end Parkinson’s Disease (PD) when her beloved husband, Rich, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, PD is a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly affects the motor system. The symptoms usually emerge slowly and, as the disease worsens, non-motor symptoms become more common. 

Carlene’s research led her to a report discussing the correlation between heavy exercise and an improvement in noticeable PD symptoms such as loss of muscle control, trembling, stiffness, slowness and impaired balance.

"If you have Parkinson's Disease and you want to delay the progression of your symptoms, you should exercise three times a week with your heart rate between 80 to 85 percent maximum. It is that simple," said Daniel Corcos, a study co-lead author and professor of physical therapy and human movement sciences at Northwestern University.1

Most Parkinson’s researchers agree that intensive exercise will help delay the progression of PD symptoms, however, the delay varies from person to person. Heavy exercise has been shown to significantly slow down the progress of PD because it keeps the mind and body connected. It seems that intense, coordinated exercise requires the brain to work together with the body and muscles. Other studies also focused on the positive chemical side effects of heavy exercise including increased blood flow, oxygen, and additional dopamine and endorphins in the brain.

Regardless of why it works, to the Hammonds, the existence of a solution – however temporary – was very encouraging. Carlene’s research pointed to a tangible solution, and Rich, who already enjoyed exercising, couldn’t help but see this as good news. To think that an increase in the frequency and intensity of Rich’s workouts could help his symptoms improve was reason enough to try. Rich began working out five to six days a week. He “took” exercise almost as one takes their daily medications.

Soon, they began to see that the research was onto something. Heavy exercise reversed Rich’s PD symptoms. For 17 years, Rich was doing much better than the neurologists had predicted. Everyone who knew of Rich’s story was amazed at the results. Early in 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions caused the Y to close, the family noticed that Rich’s Parkinson’s began to progress quickly.

Since reopening, Rich has started working out intensely again trying to regain the muscle control and strength he had prior to the coronavirus restrictions. For motivation, he has set his sights on exceeding the Olympic weight-lifting record for his age group. 

The Hammonds family is thankful the Y is open so Rich can workout at the intensity his Parkinson’s Disease requires. Many people like Rich rely heavily on our facilities for their physical health, which is part of what made shutting down in March and April so difficult.

We are hopeful that Virtual Y OKC will be able to offset any potential closures that happen in the future, as well as offer a safe environment for high-risk individuals to continue their health journey. It is our belief that Y members can continue to get a great workout with Virtual Y, even if it’s outside our facility walls.

1 https://www.webmd.com/parkinsons-disease/news/20171211/vigorous-exercise-may-help-slow-parkinsons#1

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