A Little Exercise goes a Long Way


Philip Millar
Assistant Professor
University of Guelph

Although everyone benefits from regular exercise, it’s
particularly important for people with Parkinson’s disease. Regular physical
activity can improve the stiffness, tremors and balance problems people with
this degenerative disease experience, as well as their overall quality of life.

Current recommendations are for 150 minutes or more of aerobic exercise every week. That’s a tough regimen to follow, however. At the University of Guelph, Assistant Professor Philip Millar, a cardiovascular physiologist, is studying the benefits of high-intensity but shorter exercise periods for people with Parkinson’s. Millar’s research is made possible through a Pilot Project Grant from Parkinson Canada research Program for $49,385 over 1 year.

Millar and his team measure improvements in blood pressure, motor
symptoms, exercise capacity and balance in two groups of people with
Parkinson’s. One group exercises at a moderate speed on stationary bicycles for
40 to 60 minutes at a time. The other group pedals furiously at one-minute
intervals followed by low-intensity rests, during a 20-minute workout. That
shorter workout requires 90 percent of the participant’s maximum capacity
during those high-intensity intervals.

“At the end of the day, you are doing your full workout in less
time,” says Millar.

High-intensity exercise has already shown a benefit for people
with cardiovascular problems. Millar believes people with Parkinson’s will get
the same or greater benefits from the high-intensity workouts, and may not drop

“We know many of the benefits relate to the intensity of the
exercise,” he explains.

In general, an individual’s capacity to exercise is one of the
strongest predictors of mortality, says Millar. For people with Parkinson’s
disease, exercise can improve stability, balance, and muscle strength, and
improve motor symptoms.  

In an earlier pilot study Millar conducted, the high-intensity
Parkinson’s group showed the same or greater improvements than the moderate
intensity group, Millar says. They also enjoyed their high-intensity workouts

In this larger study, Millar and his team will evaluate not only
motor symptoms, but also muscle strength, improvements in the cardiovascular
system and in mental health.

He hopes less muscle fatigue and fewer tremors will help people be
more independent and do more activities of daily living, improving their
quality of life.

One of the partners
in Millar’s work is the Guelph YMCA. If the research succeeds in demonstrating
the benefits of high-intensity training for people with Parkinson’s, Millar
hopes the national YMCA will roll out a program incorporating the findings, and
that his recommendations would also be incorporated into exercise guidelines
for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“It is our hypothesis that if we are able to get people with Parkinson’s to exercise at a higher intensity, even for a shorter period of time, they might be able to get even greater benefits. We know many of the benefits relate to the intensity of the exercise,” says Millar.

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