Physical activity keeps Parkinson's at bay

Parkinson's disease can be more effectively managed by a regular exercise program, say experts at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"There's no doubt that people who have a positive attitude and exercise generally cope with the disease much better than those who don't," said Dr. Joseph Jankovic, professor of neurology and director of BCM's Parkinson's Disease Center and Movement Disorders Clinic. "Exercise is clearly a positive force in dealing with Parkinson's."

Living proof of the "use it or lose it" adage can be found in one of Jankovic's patients, former Beaumont, Texas, Mayor Maury Meyers, who not only stays physically active, he also embodies advancements in patient care and research.

For over 10 years, Meyers has organized the Dr. Sol and Miriam Rogers Memorial Golf Tournament, which supports a research endowment at the clinic. In spite of the devastation wrought to the Beaumont area by Hurricane Rita, Meyers' charity tournament raised the most money in its history.

"Parkinson's disease keeps on going, hurricanes or not," said Jankovic.

Meyers, who also played in the recent tournament for the first time, currently shoots in the mid-80s for 18 holes in a sport where many people with no physical disabilities at all struggle to avoid the three-digit range. It took Meyers five years to overhaul the mechanics of his swing after first being diagnosed with the debilitating disease.

Meyers, who regularly rides a stationary bike and lifts free weights, considers mental fortitude equally as important as his physical regimen.

"It's kind of like a war, and your enemy is waiting to close in on you," said Meyers. "I've seen so many people succumb to the disease, spending all their time on the sofa watching TV."

"My admiration grows for Mr. Meyers every year because he not only copes so effectively with the disease, he's going way beyond it," said Jankovic. "He's not just trying to help himself, but he's also helping others by raising funds."

Jankovic says that a regular exercise program, tailored to the needs of the individual patient, is critical for continued well being. Exercises for Parkinson's patients should be designed to improve strength (through the use of free weights, weight machines, and elastic bands) and overall fitness (by walking and swimming). Swimming and water exercises have the additional advantage in that there is very little stress on the joints and the resistance improves muscle strength.

In addition to anecdotal evidence supported by Meyers' perseverance, recent animal research has provided strong evidence that exercise can increase brain levels of neurotrophic factors, increase resistance to brain insult or injury, and improve learning and mental as well as motor performance.