Parkinson’s Disease and Strength Training: Benefits

Danielle LeshinskyPosting for Dr. Hackney this month is Danielle Leshinsky, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a doctoral candidate at Emory University School of Medicine’s DPT program. She is currently researching with Dr. Madeleine Hackney and the Atlanta VA Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation , looking at the effects of Tango on Parkinson’s Disease. She is also working in the INSPIRE laboratory at the Emory Rehabilitation Hospital. Danielle chose to pursue a career in physical therapy because she finds it both challenging and rewarding. She plans to obtain a Specialist Certification in Neurology upon graduation in May 2016.

Exercise is vital for improving balance, mobility and overall health in persons diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). PD is the second most common neurological disease in the Madeleine E. Hackney, PhD The Exercise Files blogworld1. It is characterized by a deficit in dopamine resulting from a progressive loss of neurons in areas of the brain responsible for movement and coordination2.
Recently, literature has demonstrated that participating in strength training regularly can improve symptoms, make dopamine use more efficient and possibly even slow the progression of PD! In this article, we will look at why strength training has benefits specific to PD, and discuss ways to make it safe and fun.

Why Exercise?

Exercise is amazing because it changes the way our brain functions. Studies have shown that in people who regularly exercise, brain cells use dopamine more efficiently. This occurs because areas of the brain responsible for receiving dopamine signals – the substantia nigra and basal ganglia, are modified. Exercise also increases the number of D2 receptors in the brain, meaning dopamine has more places to go. Additionally, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh were able to demonstrate that in animal models, exercise increased the amount of a neurotrophic factor called GDNF, which helps protect dopamine neurons from damage3.

Choose Strength Training

The benefits of strength training include increasing muscular strength, endurance, dynamic balance and cognitive functioning. Recent studies have demonstrated that there are decreases in gross muscular strength in people weightsdiagnosed with PD, most notably in the back and hip extensors4. Researchers have speculated that this occurs secondary to postures developed throughout the course of the disease. As people begin to hunch their shoulders and lean forward instead of standing upright, postural muscles become weaker. When postural muscles become weaker, it is more difficult to balance, or recover from perturbations. This increases the likelihood of falling. Strength training is an excellent, safe way to increase strength, stability and confidence for those with PD.

Where to Start

Beginning a new exercise program can be intimidating at first. My suggestion is to find a fitness buddy – a friend or family member to start with, and help you stick to your program. Then, do your research. Build a strong program, and execute it with good form. A great resource for learning to perform exercises correctly is You can also consult a local fitness expert, or ACSM guidelines for strength training. When exercising, be sure to focus on all 5 major muscle groups – chest, back, legs, arms and core (abdominals).

Strength Training Program

Tips for Exercising Safely

  1. Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program, and continue to take all medications prescribed by doctors. Strength training is not an alternative to medication.
  1. Make sure you hydrate! Drink water before, after and during your exercise to feel better and stay safe.
  1. Bring a copy of your workout with you, so you don’t forget any exercises!
  1. Progress slowly. Make goals, and work towards them by perfecting your form and starting with light weights first. Remember, all good things take time. Have patience and enjoy the ride!


References: CLICK HERE to view complete references to published research cited above.

Dr. Madeleine E. Hackney, Ph.D, is a Research Health Scientist at the Atlanta VA Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation and an Assistant professor of Medicine in the division of General Medicine and Geriatrics at the Emory School of Medicine. She holds a Ph.D. in Movement Science from Washington University and a BFA in Dance from NYU, Tisch School of the Arts and has also been an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer since 2000. Dr. Hackney’s extensive research interests include inquiry into challenging exercise programs–traditional exercise, Tai Chi and partnered tango classes–designed to improve physical function and quality of life in people with PD, older adults and those with serious mental illness. In 2014, she co-founded MDT Education Solutions, which has trained dozens of fitness and allied health professionals how to develop and lead safe, evidence-based exercise programs for people with PD at all stages of the disease, including almost all instructors in the PD Gladiators Metro Atlanta Fitness Network (including the YMCA of Metro Atlanta).

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