Fighting Parkinson's Disease with Exercise and Diet

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Doing your best to remain healthy and strong is key for everyone with Parkinson’s disease. Research has shown that following certain lifestyle modifications can help you accomplish two important goals:

  • Better control symptoms.

  • Slow progression of the condition.

Diet modifications and a focus on exercise can:

  • Keep you healthier longer.

  • Help you avoid secondary symptoms of Parkinson’s, like constipation.

  • Improve mobility and balance.

  • Enhance your overall quality of life.

The Role of Diet

Following a balanced diet improves general well-being and boosts your ability to deal with symptoms of the disease. Eating plenty of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, lean protein, beans and legumes, and whole grains, and staying hydrated are key ways to stay energized and healthy overall. That said, you should be aware of some special considerations.

  • Constipation: Many patients with Parkinson’s disease experience constipation due to a slowdown of the digestive system. At best, constipation is an annoyance, but at worst, your large intestine can become impacted. Combat constipation with a diet rich in fiber from sources such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain breads and cereals. Drinking plenty of fluids and exercising can also help you avoid constipation.

  • Dehydration: Medications that treat Parkinson’s disease can dry you out. Not only can dehydration leave you more tired, over time, it can also lead to confusion, balance issues, weakness and kidney problems. Be sure to drink plenty of water and other fluids throughout the day.

  • Medication interaction: The drug most commonly used to treat Parkinson’s disease, carbidopa-levodopa, is absorbed in your small intestine. That absorption can be disrupted if you take your medication shortly after eating a high-protein meal, since it involves the same process. To help maximize the medication’s effects, eat high-protein foods at other times of the day. If you take your medicine in the morning, have oatmeal rather than high-protein eggs for breakfast, and save your protein intake for later in the day.

The Role of Exercise

Exercise can make the greatest impact on the course of your disease, says Denise Padilla-Davidson, a Johns Hopkins physical therapist who works with patients who have Parkinson’s disease. “Movement, especially exercises that encourage balance and reciprocal patterns [movements that require coordination of both sides of your body], can actually slow progression of the disease,” she says. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Get your heart pumping: Many symptoms of Parkinson’s disease that limit physical ability, such as impaired gait, problems with balance and strength, grip strength, and motor coordination, show improvement with regular cardiovascular exercise. For example, a review of studies on treadmill training found that regular walking workouts helped increase normal walking speed and lengthen stride length, which tends to shorten with Parkinson’s disease.

  • Move it or lose it: As Parkinson’s disease motor symptoms, like a slowed gait or tremor, become apparent, patients may become afraid of losing their balance and falling or dropping things, which leads to excessive caution and fear, which in turn leads to an even more sedentary lifestyle. Experts know that formal exercise helps keep patients active and healthy, and research also shows that normal physical activity may be just as or more important than trips to the gym. Keeping up with routine daily activities, like washing dishes, folding laundry, yardwork, shopping — anything that gets and keeps you on your feet — helps delay the degeneration of motor symptoms.

  • Work out your brain: Exercise — again, anything that gets your heart pumping — may help the brain maintain neuroplasticity, which is the ability to maintain old connections and form new ones between the neurons in your brain. “The neuroplasticity created from exercise in patients with Parkinson’s disease may actually outweigh the effects of neurodegeneration,” says Padilla-Davidson.

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