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"The benefits of exercise that apply to a normal, healthy person are even greater in Parkinson's disease because it also affects the symptoms of the disease. A person with Parkinson's will get all the benefits that a normal, healthy person does, plus it will modify the symptoms of their disease," said Dr. Daniel Corcos, a professor of physical therapy and human movement sciences at Northwestern University in Chicago. Corcos was not involved in the new study.
Parkinson's is a motor system disorder that impairs a person's ability to control their muscle movements.
The new study, published online July 2 in the journal Neurology, involved 60 Parkinson's disease patients between the ages of 50 and 80. All were in the early stages of the disease. They were living independently, had no signs of dementia or other serious health problems, and could walk without the aid of a cane or walker while on their regular medications.
The researchers asked all the participants to walk three times a week, wearing a heart rate monitor to make sure they were striding at a moderately intense pace. They started with sessions of 15 minutes and gradually worked up to walking 45 minutes at a time.
The study defined moderate intensity as a heart rate that was at least 70 percent of the maximum heart rate for a person's age. For most people, that meant they were working in the range of 104 to 111 beats per minute.
"This means that the participants were breaking a sweat but not working to the level of exhaustion," explained study author Dr. Ergun Uc, a neurologist with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City.
Researchers tested the patients' physical and mental function before the study began and then six months after people had started their walking programs.
On the second round of testing, participants showed significant improvements in their aerobic fitness. They were also able to walk more quickly and with better balance. And, they experienced less stiffness than they had before the study started, the study authors noted.
In addition, some measures of brain function improved. The participants performed better on a test that gauges how well people can direct their attention. With regard to mood, the patients also reported less fatigue and depression, and a more positive outlook on life.
Because the study didn't have a "control group" -- a group of patients who took part in the study but didn't walk -- it's hard to know whether the improvements seen were the result of the exercise alone. Sometimes, people can improve just because they're getting better care from the doctors and nurses who are monitoring them for a study.
For that reason, Uc said his study results need to be repeated in a randomized, controlled trial, and he's applied for a grant to do that.
But this study isn't the first to find that exercise can yield important benefits for Parkinson's patients.
Corcos led a study that showed weight training could result in similar benefits for Parkinson's patients.
"This is a very important study. The reason the study is important is because it's using an exercise that's easy for people to do. And it got important results," Corcos said.
The study authors agreed that walking is something most people can do to improve their health.
But, Uc said, "it has to be safe. It has to be according to their abilities, and it has to be prescribed by a trained person, like a physician."
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SOURCES: Ergun Uc, M.D., neurologist, The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and The Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Iowa City; Daniel Corcos, M.D., professor, physical therapy and human movement sciences, Northwestern University, Chicago; July 29, 2014, Neurology