Finding untapped strength in exercise classes for Parkinson’s
The front desk staffer at the Mapleton branch of the Boulder YMCA told me it wouldn’t be a problem finding the exercise class for people with Parkinson’s disease.
“You’ll hear them before you get to the studio,” she said, and she wasn’t kidding. Over the piped-in music floating across one of the biggest workout rooms, even through the closed double doors of the studio, you could hear the shouting countdowns. Inside, there were people with walkers and wheelchairs, canes and, often, no support at all, and each one was belting out numbers or letters as if they were at a group karaoke competition.
They sounded strong. They looked strong. Each of them, including the instructor, Gary Sobol, have Parkinson’s disease, and this exercise class is one way they keep at bay the symptoms that rob them of their balance, coordination and their voices.
On that fall day in 2012, I was there as a reporter to write about Sobol’s popular, award-winning class for the Denver Post. Afterward, I stayed in touch with Sobol, and followed studies about how exercise helps people with Parkinson’s disease as well as multiple sclerosis.
Three years later, a few months after leaving the Denver Post to focus on aging research and other issues, I went back to Sobol’s class to learn how to become an instructor, thinking it would help me in this new career. With an evangelistic zeal, Sobol is spreading the word about how much exercise can help arrest or sometimes dial back tremor, balance trouble and other symptoms of both Parkinson’s disease and MS. His GZ Sobol Parkinson’s Network classes are expanding throughout the U.S.
The class is 90 minutes long, based on exercise physiology research by Arizona physical therapist Dr. Becky Farley and the Parkinson Wellness Recovery resource center. Many of the drills require exaggerated movement and shouted countdowns, characteristic of the Big And Loud therapy technique developed by LSVT Global.
Both depend on a use-it-or-lose-it philosophy, and on the importance of connecting with others who share a diagnosis. Regular exercise — tai chi, ballroom dancing, indoor cycling, yoga — can also help minimize symptoms, but being in a class with others who share a diagnosis is as important as working on strength and flexibility, says Dorothy Stenman.
“It helps to work out with other people,” she said. She is tall, with curly blonde hair and a general aversion to exercise that she overcomes nearly every Wednesday to attend the midday Parkinson’s/MS class at the downtown Denver Y, which I co-teach with master racewalker Lis Shepherd.
The workout starts slowly and gently. Participants sit in padded chairs. The first few drills are small: Turn your head right. Turn your head left. Look up. Look down. Nod. Lift one foot, then the other. Then pick up the speed.
Nothing is silent. If you lift your foot, you yell “LIFT!” When you drop that foot on the floor, you yell “STOMP!” Lungs and vocal cords get as much exercise as the rest of the body. Everyone chants or counts together: “RIGHT. LEFT.” “ONE. TWO. THREE.” “OUT. DOWN. UP. PAYBACK!”
It’s less 1980s aerobics class than quasimilitary, and the drills are demanding. Nobody likes the two-minute wall squat, but it’s made everyone’s legs much stronger. And those stronger legs are more helpful when rising from a chair — a task that can be increasingly difficult for someone with Parkinson’s, or even just old age.
After 30 minutes, the chairs go off to one side. We practice walking in outsized gaits. “Walk like you’re John Wayne and just got off your horse!” I’ll say, reminding people to keep their feet wide as they march across the exercise studio. That exaggerated stance discourages the tendency to shuffle, and it helps build confidence.
The exercise sequences build on one another. A chair exercise that involves lifting one foot and swinging it to the side of the chair — like lifting a snowshoe or cross-country ski over a log blocking a backcountry trail — helps prepare stiff muscles for lunges and high steps. It also helps remind the brain to ignore the recalcitrant instinct to shuffle or minimize movement. This is the ultimate use-it-or-lose-it challenge.
So we walk like John Wayne. We walk backward — carefully, watching ourselves in the studio mirrors — building neurons, working on balance. We sidestep. We bow low. We reach high, and spirits lift as well. We commiserate when someone is having a bad day because of their symptoms, and celebrate when their flexibility improves and their tremors decrease. I’ve even noticed improvements in my own balance and range of motion since we started the classes last March.
One of the most inspiring participants was Donnie, who has cerebral palsy, depends on a motorized wheelchair, and joined the class last spring because he wanted to be able to stand up at his friend’s wedding. He didn’t intend to be a member of the wedding party. He just wanted to stand when the bride, who also uses a wheelchair, rolled down the aisle.
Donnie showed up week after week, doing his best to build his atrophied muscles. Shepherd worked with him, practicing shifting his considerable weight to his unaccustomed feet.
And finally, one day in June, Donnie said, “Watch.” Lis was beaming. The rest of us circled his wheelchair. Donnie pressed his hands and forearms on the wheelchair’s arms. He struggled up. For a few remarkable seconds, he stood, trembling just a little, beaming like an Olympic champion.
Ginny Ennis, 81, and her husband, Chuck Ennis 84, go through their routine during their workout class for people with Parkinson’s disease at the YMCA Downtown in Denver. Joe Amon, The Denver Post
Chuck Ennis 84, enjoys taking part in his workout class for people with Parkinson’s disease at the YMCA Downtown in Denver. Joe Amon, The Denver Post