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Does exercising protect against Parkinson's disease?

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Sport is often spoken of as one of the best protective factors against diseases of all kinds.

Although it is evident that the practice of exercise is useful for cardiovascular diseases, obesity or diabetes, its effect on neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, although suspected, was not as Sure.

Does exercising protect against Parkinson's disease? This is the question that we will answer in the next few paragraphs. Read on to find out the answer!

  • Related article: "Parkinson's: causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention"

Does regular exercise protect against Parkinson's disease?

Many times we hear that practicing sports can be beneficial not only for our physical health, but also for our mental health. It is often said that the practice of regular physical activity can be a factor for the protection and prevention of diseases associated with old age. Given the frequency, severity and great family and social cost involved in certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, much research has tried to see if there is a lower risk of these problems when exercising.

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Over the decades, several of these investigations have revealed evidence that exercise does protect against Parkinson's disease and other dementias. The first study to address this question was that of Sasco and colleagues in 1992. Their research group was credited with being the first to reveal that a high level of physical activity could reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease. In his case, it was an epidemiological study, with cases and controls.

More than a decade later, in 2005, a work by Chen's group and colleagues was published in which they also contributed evidence that supported the idea that exercising at high levels was associated with a reduced risk of Parkinson's in mens. In their case, they studied a sample made up of 48,574 men and 77,254 women, all of them belonging to the field of health sciences, following how their health progressed for 19 years.

In this second study it was observed that men who practiced intense exercise an average of 10 months a year benefited from a significant reduction in the risk of developing Parkinson's. Individuals who had an active life were about 60% less likely to suffer from neurodegenerative diseases compared to those who, on average, exercised two or less months a year.

Sport and Parkinson's

Another study by Xu et al. (2010) published in the journal Neurology, with 213,701 participants and obtaining similar results to the previous case. In this case, the participants were part of the cohort of the Study of Diet and Health of the National Institute of Nutrition of the USA (NIH-AARP). Through his research, it was found that people who did moderate-intense exercise at age 25-29 and in the ten years prior to study completion had a 40% lower risk of suffering from Parkinson's disease compared to sedentary participants.

We could continue talking about the many investigations that have addressed this same issue and have obtained similar results, varying in gender and nationality. What most of them conclude is that leading an active lifestyle is a good protective factor against possibility of suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, especially if you do sports in a moderate to intense.

It did not matter the type of sport: swimming, tennis, jogging, cycling, aerobic and anaerobic exercises ... Everything seems to indicate that the practice of sport, at least in general terms, protects against Parkinson's.

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Meta-analysis on Parkinson's and sport

As we said, there have been many studies that have addressed how practicing exercise can work as a protective factor against Parkinson's disease. This was investigated in the form of a meta-analysis in 2018 with a study published in JAMA Neurology. This work consists of a large systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies related to the subject and that gave even more force to the benefits of exercise in preventing Parkinson's.

The objective set by the group of Fang and colleagues behind this meta-analysis was to quantify the dose-response association between physical activity and the risk of suffering from Parkinson. For this, a systematic review was carried out in search of those articles that addressed the subject, finding them in prestigious sources and scientific rigor such as PubMed, Embase and Web of Science.

In their research, they were able to identify eight prospective studies that added 544,336 participants and were followed for a mean of 12 years (6.1 to 22 years). The total number of Parkinson's cases identified in the course of the studies was 2,192. As a result, the researchers observed an association between both a high level of total physical activity (21%) and between a moderate-intense one (29%) and a reduced risk of neurodegenerative disease, especially among men. Light physical activity was not associated with reduced risk.

  • Related article: "Neurodegenerative diseases: types, symptoms and treatments"

How would physical activity prevent Parkinson's?

Based on the multiple investigations that address the subject, it seems to be clear that the practice Regular exercise is an important and effective protective factor against suffering from the disease of Parkinson. Now, the key question would come: how does exercise reduce the risk of suffering from this disease? Around this, various mechanisms have been suggested that could explain the great neuroprotective effect of physical activity.

It has been seen with laboratory animals that regular exercise contributes to the preservation of dopaminergic function, a function that is severely impaired in Parkinson's disease due to the destruction of cells in the black substance. Added to this, regular physical activity has been shown to reduce damage to dopamine cells in motor circuits, such as the striatum and the mesocortical system.

Another of the possible mechanisms that would explain the benefits of exercise in the prevention of Parkinson's would be that physical activity reduces cellular inflammation and oxidative stress. Added to this, physical exercise has a neuroprotective effect, contributing to the expression of developmental factors such as brain-derived neurotropic factor and neurotropic factor derived from glia.

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Can physical exercise help those who already have the disease?

It has been seen that physical exercise not only serves to prevent Parkinson's disease but also can help those who already suffer from neurodegeneration, something that in fact is already applied in therapy with this type of patients.

Physical activity is part of the therapy and management of the condition, and serves to delay the motor impairment responsible for the typical signs associated with the disease such as tremors, joint stiffness and slowness of movements, prolonging the functional independence of the affected.

Exercises that enhance strength and dynamic stretching notably help to delay the progression of symptoms, both physical and cognitive. A good example of exercise with these characteristics is Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art that notably improves balance and increases strength, mobility and mental state, as well as being safe and having a very reduced risk of falling.

  • Related article: "Neuropsychology: what is it and what is its object of study?"

How much exercise is necessary?

At this point, we will mention how much physical activity is recommended not only to prevent the appearance and development of diseases neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but also to contribute to having a perfect physical and psychological state at any age and before any condition.

Although there are different guidelines on what is the level of exercise necessary to have a good physical and mental state, we will base ourselves on the Physical Activity Guide developed by the American Heart Association and is often used as a worldwide reference.

Preschool children (3 to 5 years old) need to be physically active all day to support their growth and development. Children and teens (6 to 17) should get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day. From the age of 17, in young adulthood and middle age, it is advisable to perform both light and moderate aerobic exercise, with activities such as fast walking (150 to 300 minutes per week) and intense such as cycling or running (75 to 150 minutes).

As for the people of the seniors (65 or over) are advised the practice of multi-component physical activities, practicing balance and flexibility, in addition to doing aerobic and strength exercises to reduce muscle atrophy, frailty and falls. In case of suffering from a chronic disease or disability, one should try to practice the recommended exercise according to age, within the possibilities of the patient.

It should be said that, no matter how light the physical activity is, it is always better than having a sedentary and inactive lifestyle. The ideal is to achieve the recommended weekly goals but, if you cannot achieve it, do not get discouraged and try to incorporate some exercise into your weekly routine. In case of doing more than what is recommended, better than better, since it will bring benefits cardiovascular activities, although you should always avoid overexertion and push your body to the limit.

Although exercise does not assure us that we will not suffer from any neurodegenerative disease, it does significantly reduce the chances of suffering from it. This should be seen as a message of hope and encouragement for those with a family history of these diseases and understand that the frequent practice of exercise is our best preventive medicine for all kinds of diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson.

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