Find­ing un­tapped strength in ex­er­cise classes for Parkin­son’s

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Claire Martin

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.

Only prouder.

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

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