A little exercise goes a long way

Physiological benefits of high-intensity interval training for individuals with Parkinson’s disease

Philip Millar
Assistant Professor
University of Guelph
Pilot Project Grant
$49,385 over 1 year

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 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 out.

“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 more.

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.