For one Mooresville man, soccer is more than just a fun sport to play with friends.

Luke Ray, 41, says staying physically active is a way to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, an incurable nervous system disorder affecting movement. Ray was diagnosed with the disease in his mid-30s after experiencing symptoms for four years, he said.

“The oddest thing, no matter how bad I’m feeling, if I am having a bad day, I hit the soccer field and I can’t tell,” Ray said. “You would never know.”

Ray plays in an adult league through the Mooresville Adult Soccer Association and the Charlotte Independence Soccer Club. On Feb. 12, CISC Director of Community Engagement Fil Wilkinson filmed a game Ray played in to send to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to help the nonprofit organization raise awareness about the disease.

Using video review and performance analysis tools, Wilkinson said during the 33 minutes Ray played, he ran 1.7 miles and touched the ball more than 100 times.

“His doctors tell him ‘don’t stop playing,’” Wilkinson said. “It helps his body keep moving.”

Experts agree that exercise is important for those with Parkinson’s.

“There’s more and more data that’s coming out that shows that people that exercise are progressing at a slower rate,” said Dr. Jim Battista, a neurologist with Novant Health.

Parkinson’s disease has four main symptoms, but they don’t always happen at once, Battista said. These symptoms include having tremors at rest, stiffness of movements or rigidity, slowness of movement and difficulties with walking or balance, Battista said. The majority of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s tend to be 55 years or older and primarily men, he said.

Early onset happens before the age of 40, Battista said.

Parkinson’s disease results when, for unknown reasons, brain cells stop producing as much of a chemical called dopamine which cause symptoms to occur, said Battista.

But exercise may slow, halt or even reverse the disease process in the brain, said Mark Hirsch, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Lab at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Rehabilitation. Hirsch’s own study, published in 2003, was one of the first randomized controlled trials in the field to show exercise had a positive effect on Parkinson’s disease by reducing falls and improving quality of life for patients, he said.

That distinction is a big change from 30 years ago when scientists believed exercise generally had no effect on Parkinson’s disease, Hirsch said. “So, we’ve come to learn that exercise or physical activity affects the molecular machinery in the brain itself,” Hirsch said.

In people with Parkinson’s disease, exercise has been shown to improve the concentration of certain neurotrophic factors or proteins that keep brain neurons vibrant and healthy, Hirsch said. Exercise also addresses the misfiring dopamine receptors in the brain of a person with Parkinson’s disease and brings those levels back to normal, he said. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls communication in the brain, including the body’s motor control, also stays for a longer amount of time in the body’s synapses between the nerve cells with exercise, Hirsch said. Lastly, with exercise there are changes in the volume of gray brain matter that help the overall brain make decisions and process information in people with Parkinson’s disease, he said.

Dual tasks, like walking while talking, are normal for most people, but are more difficult for people with Parkinson’s disease, he continued. “Exercise improves the brain’s ability to perform those tasks in parallel without either of the tasks getting any worse,” Hirsch said.

Exercise has also been shown to improve health problems in Parkinson’s disease patients like falling and staying asleep, depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment and constipation, Hirsch said. “Exercise has been shown to be helpful for most of those conditions and those conditions are difficult to treat with medicines,” Hirsch said.

Ann Marie Worman, executive director of the Parkinson Association of the Carolinas, encourages those with Parkinson’s disease to do whatever activity or exercise they are capable of doing. The idea of sitting in a chair and not moving is the thought process of “our grandparents’ Parkinson’s,” Worman said. “Exercise is key in helping someone new with Parkinson’s cope with the various symptoms that come along with it. Don’t think you automatically have to slow down.”

Slowing down isn’t in Ray’s vocabulary.

“They want you to stay active and I’m sometimes way too over active,” Ray said. “I think I’m 18 still.”

Reducing stress and getting enough sleep are also important for Ray, who is on medication to delay the progression of the disease. But exercise is the best thing for him, Ray said. “It’s the best drug I could ever have,” Ray said.

Staying active and taking his medication has had positive results for Ray.

Ray’s doctors use a range of movement test to measure if the disease is progressing. The lower the score the better, he said. The first time Ray took it, his score was in the low to mid-20s out of the highest score of more than 100. Last spring, he measured an 11, he said.

Since there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, physicians must work to improve their patients’ quality of lives. “We always encourage people to do activities that give a full range of motion,” Battista said. That’s why boxing is popular with Parkinson’s patients because they can use their entire body in the workout, he said.

Four YMCA branches in the greater Charlotte area offer programming for those with Parkinson’s disease, said Jasmine Hardy, community health manager for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte. Hirsch and Dr. Sanjay Iyer trained the staff when the programming was brought to the branches many years ago, said Hardy.

The Lowe’s, Harris, Brace Family and Sally’s YMCA offer group exercise classes for those with neuromuscular disorders to alleviate or gain more control of some of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s and other neuromuscular disorders, Hardy said. These locations also offer personal training with trainers who have specific experience working with people with neuromuscular disorders, Hardy said.

These locations also serve as host sites for free monthly Parkinson’s disease support groups for caretakers and those with Parkinson’s, Hardy said. “Sometimes we don’t get all the information we need from our physicians and we have to rely on the support of those who have gone through or are going through that experience,” said Hardy.

For Ray, exercise has been a saving grace. He continues to stay active, runs his business and works on building his new home. “Mentally, it doesn’t bother me at all,” Ray said, of his diagnosis. “I’ve been given a great life to this point.”