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Giving Parkinson's Disease a Kung Fu Kick

Keeping active may help slow the loss of function in neurological diseases.

Martial arts may be able to help with the rate of decline in Parkinson's disease, a progressive degeneration of the brain. It is associated with loss of dopamine transmission within clusters of neurons collectively called the "basal ganglia." Early symptoms of Parkinson's include motor deficits like tremors, rigidity of the muscles, slow and inaccurate movement, followed by later cognitive decline and dementia.

As Giovanni Abbruzzese and colleagues in Genoa, Italy have pointed out in a recent paper in "Parkinsonism and Related Disorders," that physical rehabilitation has typically been considered an occasional addition to pharmacological and surgical treatments for Parkinson's. There is a growing body of evidence, they point out, that physical rehabilitation—including appropriate martial arts training—can help reduce the decline of disability in Parkinson's and does so through adaptive neuroplasticity.

Someone with Parkinson's usually have significant problems with balance control. When trying to move around, poor balance control leads to a higher risk of falls. Fuzhong Li and others in Oregon, wanted to know if tai chi chu'an, a form of Chinese martial art that helps with balance control and many other issues in young and old, could have a beneficial effect on those with Parkinson's.

Li and colleagues published the results of their randomized control trial "Tai Chi and Postural Stability in Patients with Parkinson's Disease" in the New England Journal of Medicine. Twice each week for 24 weeks participants (who had "mild" to "moderate" impairments) in the trial performed 60 minutes of either tai chi, resistance training, or stretching.

Tai chi training improved the maximum range and directional control of standing balance, as well as stride length during stepping and functional reach. There were some enhanced benefits compared to stretching or resistance training as well, suggesting an all encompassing intervention should likely include all 3 things for the most benefit.

In my view the really important concept that is captured in studies like those above is moving beyond concerns for cure. Biomedical science does not currently have a cure for Parkinson's. But if we flip the concept around and think instead about slowing down the progress of the disease, rehabilitation can now be seen as an important activity to include in management.

More work in this area is needed but the takeaway is that engaging in meaningful physical activity can tap into fundamental principles of our biology across our entire lifespans. People are animals too, and all animals need to move. Physical activity is a key factor in keeping human bodies healthy and well.

The evidence shows that physical activity can serve an important rehabilitative role in neurological disorders. Especially physical activities like martial arts that challenge coordination within the motor and sensory systems found in our brains and spinal cords.

Brain plasticity has no expiration date. It's up to us to take those steps—or kicks—in as helpful a direction as we can manage.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2015)