Parkinson's disease nerve cells, illustration
Credit: Kateryna Kon / Science Photo Library

Research led by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in Paris suggests regular exercise could significantly reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

In the ongoing E3N cohort study of 95,000 women, lead researcher Alexis Elbaz, based at Inserm in Paris, and colleagues found that women in the highest frequency exercise group had a 25% reduced risk of developing the condition than those in the lowest frequency group.

“Exercise is a low-cost way to improve health overall, so our study sought to determine if it may be linked to a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating disease that has no cure,” said Elbaz in a press statement.

This association had previously been observed in men. However, due to Parkinson’s having a long phase where symptoms are minimal, it could not be ruled out that the condition was the reason they were doing less exercise in these studies.

There are around 90,000 people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year in the U.S. and the numbers are increasing rapidly. There are few treatments and no cure for the degenerative neurological movement disorder, so developing effective preventive measures are important.

As reported in the journal Neurology, the researchers used data from the E3N cohort study which began in 1990 and includes women born between 1925 and 1950 who were covered by a national health insurance plan mostly aimed at teachers. Of the women in the study, around 20% completed a questionnaire on lifestyle habits such as exercise in 1990, with follow-up questionnaires completed every 2–3 years since then (1196 cases and 23,879 controls).

Exercise intensity was measured using a concept known as metabolic equivalent of task (MET). This measure gives every task a numerical value depending on energy expenditure. For example, walking or yoga might be given a score between 3–6 MET, whereas jogging could be as high as 11. The researchers then multiplied the MET score by frequency and duration of the task or activity to calculate MET hours per week. The average MET h/week at the beginning of the study was 45, MET h/week in the lowest and highest quartiles was 27 and 71, respectively.

Of the 95,354 women in the study who were free of Parkinson’s disease in 2000, 1074 developed the condition before 2018. Looking at those who answered regular exercise questionnaires during the follow-up period, there was a significant association with disease risk. After adjusting for possible confounding factors such as place of residence, age of first period and menopausal status, women in the top quartile for exercise had a 25% lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease during the follow-up compared with those in the lowest quartile.

“With our large study, not only did we find that female participants who exercise the most have a lower rate of developing Parkinson’s disease, we also showed that early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease were unlikely to explain these findings, and instead that exercise is beneficial and may help delay or prevent this disease,” said Elbaz. “Our results support the creation of exercise programs to help lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease.”

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