Exercise can mean lots of things — walking around the block, playing bowls or tennis, gardening or even running a marathon. Whatever form of exercise you choose, what all of these activities have in common is that they are great for your general health and for keeping you active as you age.
What they also have in common is that most of them don’t help to improve the connectivity within the brain cells. They are not typically novel or intensive enough and are considered neuro-passive. This is important because effective connectivity is vital for efficient function of movement, thinking and feeling and is dependent on a constant rewiring, reinforcing or pruning of the connections in the brain depending on how the brain is stimulated – or not.
So it would seem that not all exercise is considered equal. To improve the connectivity, the exercise needs to be intense — around 80 per cent of your maximum effort — challenging, frequent and often involving dual tasks with movement and thinking. This exercise approach is called neuro-active.
In Parkinson’s disease, the connectivity between cells is disrupted by the loss of one of the chemicals in the brain, dopamine. Parkinson’s is a neuro-degenerative condition, meaning that the connections deteriorate over time leading to the slower and smaller movements, stiffness and tremor common in people with the condition.
Recent literature has put neuro-active exercise in the spotlight as it appears to be the only tool we currently have not only to improve the connectivity between the cells improving movement, thinking and feeling, but perhaps even to slow the symptom progression caused by the loss of dopamine.
This is exciting because exercise comes with very few side effects, provides a huge return on investment and can be really good fun. If it is also shown to protect the brain cells and connections and be neuro-protective, it starts to provide a very compelling reason why exercise should be prescribed immediately on diagnosis or at the first sign of symptoms.