Treating Parkinson’s with Weight Training: A Brief (Personal) History

Back in the early 1990’s when my father was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), I was not very familiar with all the treatment options available to treat this disease. After a bit of research I was surprised to discover that not much was being done treatment-wise other than prescribing drugs. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) was still in it’s infancy, and exercise, if prescribed at all, was very low intensity activity and stretching. PD is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to communicate with muscles by progressively destroying the areas that produce neurotransmitters (special brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body).

Intense exercise was strongly discouraged for PD patients because, the prevailing belief of the medical community was that exercise might further deplete the already low amount of neurotransmitters available. The idea that intense exercise might increase production or effectiveness of neurotransmitters was considered improbable (at best) and potentially harmful (by most). It was a “given” that PD patients could not increase their strength or muscle mass significantly (due to the steadily declining production of neurotransmitters).

What seemed logical to researchers and people treating PD, seemed counter-intuitive to my sports medicine trained way of thinking. Exercise improves the performance, production and function of all the systems of the body. Lack of exercise decreases the performance of the body systems. Might intense exercise stimulate the body to produce or improve use of neurotransmitters?

My dad volunteered to test my theory. He was very motivated because his goal was to live the highest quality of life for as long as possible. His wish was to never see the inside of a skilled nursing facility. I designed a program for him that involved daily exercises at home and three to four days of weight lifting at a gym. After six consecutive months of increased strength, endurance and functional scores, his neurologist was very intrigued and helped me recruit other PD patients for a larger study.

This time we tracked cognitive and physical performance (via standardized PD tests) and medications. The results of this study demonstrated that patients who exercised daily either increased or maintained all their scores, while patients who did not exercise (or stopped exercising) saw a significant and often rapid decrease in their scores. Unfortunately, when I presented the results of this study to PD experts at a regional Parkinson’s Institute and several medical campuses, the unanimous response was that something other than weight lifting was responsible for the increased scores (such as data error). It was the opinion of the PD experts that weight training could not and did not improve physical or cognitive performance—especially over a period of six months or more.

Fast forward 15 years. The benefits of weight training are becoming more accepted in medicine in general and, more specifically, in the treatment of many neurological disorders. Recent studies have demonstrated that weight training stimulates the brain (in a good way) at a much higher level than any other intervention. In regards to PD, one recent study showed that weight training not only improved the symptoms of PD, but was also the only intervention studied (so far) that was able to maintain this improvement over two years (the length of the study).

Do we know if weight training increases the production of neurotransmitters? No. We also do not know if weight training can slow the progression of or prevent PD. While much more research is needed, a more wide-spread acknowledgement of the benefits of weight training is also needed within the medical and research communities. In the meantime, I will continue to encourage PD patients to add weight training to their treatment program. A higher quality of life is possible through weight training.

Learn more about COAST Rehab’s specialized Parkinson’s Disease physical therapy program.

Gerry Van Dyke

Owner/Director, COAST Rehab PT, SCS, ATC

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