Weight Training Improves Parkinson’s Symptoms

Twice-Weekly Resistance Training Sessions Can Improve Tremors, Slowness, and Rigidity

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 16, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

Feb 16, 2012 -- Weight training twice a week may reduce the stiffness, slowness, and tremors often seen in people with Parkinson’s disease, a new study shows.

A progressive neurologic disease, Parkinson’s affects up to 1 million people in the U.S. Symptoms include tremors and difficulty with movement and walking. The study shows that weight training for two years trumps stretching and balance exercises for these so-called motor symptoms.

The findings are to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in New Orleans.

In the study, 48 people with Parkinson’s disease participated in a weight-training program or another program aimed at improving flexibility, balance, and strength. Participants exercised for one hour twice a week for two years. They were aged 59, on average, and had had Parkinson’s for about seven years.

Everyone saw benefits after six months, but these benefits lasted two years among those in the weight-training group.

Specifically, people in the weight-training group saw a 7.3-point improvement after two years on a measure that combines symptoms of Parkinson’s into a single score. “The three cardinal signs of Parkinson’s disease are slowness, tremor, and rigidity, and weight training will help all of these,” says researcher Daniel Corcos, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Our study shows weightlifting twice a week is helpful and you should try to work all of your muscle groups.”

It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen.

“Anyone can do it, from the newly diagnosed to people with advanced Parkinson’s in wheelchairs. It is never too late to start,” Corcos says.

People in wheelchairs may be able to exercise their ankles using resistance bands, for example.

Tai Chi vs. Weight Training

It’s not so much what you do, but that you do something if you have Parkinson’s disease, says Stuart Isaacson, MD. He is the director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center of Boca Raton and an associate professor of neurology at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine in Miami.

“Parkinson’s disease affects mobility, and any type of exercise that helps people move may improve overall mobility, so we always recommend exercise,” he says. “Everyone with Parkinson’s should exercise. A little is better than none.”

Recent studies have suggested that tai chi, a form of martial arts marked by slow, gentle movements and deep breathing, may  improve some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, such as balance.

Is tai chi better than weight training? It depends. “If balance is the issue, tai chi may be best, but if a person is concerned mainly with mobility, stiffness, and slowness, weight training may offer more benefits,” Isaacson tells WebMD.

Some evidence suggests that exercise may do even more than boost strength and balance; it may protect brain cells from degeneration and make Parkinson’s medications work better.

Many people with Parkinson’s disease are also depressed and may not be willing to exercise. It is not a choice, Isaacson says: “It has to be a part of everyday routine, much like taking medications, showering, or eating.”

These findings will be presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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Stuart Isaacson, MD, director of Parkinson’s disease and Movement Disorders Center, Boca Raton, Fla.; associate professor of neurology, Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, Miami, Fla.

Daniel Corcos, PhD, the University of Illinois, Chicago.

American Academy of Neurology 64th Annual Meeting, New Orleans, April 21-28, 2012.

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