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Aerobic Exercise Can Help Parkinson’s Patients Improve Heart Health

Dr. Alberts and his team have found that even short sessions of aerobic exercise can bring gains in cardiopulmonary function for patients with Parkinson’s disease.


In a new study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, investigators in the lab of Jay Alberts, PhD, have shown that high-intensity aerobic exercise (on a stationary bike) confers significant cardiopulmonary benefits for patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD)—a disorder of the nervous system that most commonly affects movement and motor control.

This latest study from the Alberts lab, part of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, builds on its previous research demonstrating that people who have mild-to-moderate PD may gain motor benefits from aerobic exercise.

“Previous research has shown that aerobic exercise has a significant effect on both motor and non-motor PD symptoms, and holds the potential to alter disease progression,” said Amanda Penko, PhD, research associate in the Alberts lab and first author on the study. “Our newest findings demonstrate that even a relatively short program of aerobic exercise can also benefit cardiopulmonary response.”

In addition to affecting the motor system, PD can cause dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system, as well. For instance, PD may affect the heart and lead to symptoms such as low blood pressure, and can slow heart rate response to exercise.

Cycling toward better heart health

In this study, subjects were divided into three groups: voluntary exercise, forced exercise (in which a motorized cycle assisted the subjects in riding) and a control group.

Both exercise groups rode a stationary cycle three times a week for eight weeks, with the goal to maintain between 60 and 80% of their heart rate reserve (the difference between normal and maximum heart rates). With the assistance of the motorized cycle, the forced exercise group pedaled 35% faster than their normal rate. All three groups took part in a graded exercise test before and after the trial to measure cardiopulmonary responses.

Moderate exercise is better than no exercise

Both exercise groups improved their submaximal aerobic level, or peak oxygen consumption at ventilatory threshold to exercise, when compared to the control group. While both exercise groups exercised at nearly identical intensities, the researchers found that even a small improvement in aerobic capacity may improve an individual’s activities of daily living. 

The best predictors of greater aerobic capacity, or peak oxygen consumption, were younger age, high exercise cadence (pace), and lower peak oxygen consumption at the start of the trial. The lab is currently conducting a year-long, in-home aerobic cycling trial to look for more specific recommendations for PD patients.

“We wanted to observe how individuals responded at a submaximal aerobic level, because finding ways to increase that value may help people with activities of daily living and improve their quality of life,” said Dr. Penko.

“We’re seeing that patients with PD can exercise for longer periods more comfortably, which will not only help their hearts, but may also lower disability rates. In fact, aerobic exercise is gaining popularity as a complementary therapy to the management of PD.”

This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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