Even though down valley resident Gary Feucht was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two and a half years ago, most people wouldn’t know he has the disease unless he shares it with them. The chronic and progressive movement disorder affects as many as one million Americans, which is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (www.pdf.org).
Like anyone newly diagnosed with a medical ailment, Feucht diligently researched the disease.
“I heard from several different sources that exercise was very helpful in Parkinson’s and, specifically, I heard a second hand quote from Dr. (Rajeev) Kumar, who is a movement disorder specialist in Denver, that exercise is more effective than medicine,” Feucht said.
Then Feucht read about Gary Sobol, a Parkinson’s sufferer in his mid-70s who teaches a Parkinson’s Boot Camp class at a the YMCA in Boulder.
After watching his quality of life go downhill, Sobol, a former marathon runner, contacted Dr. Becky Farley, a neuroscientist and physical therapist who created a series of exercises specifically for people with Parkinson’s. He traveled to Tucson, Ariz., to train through her NeuroFitness Center for Excellence for Parkinson Exercise and started teaching his class at the YMCA in January 2012.
Now Sobol is sharing his knowledge, hoping that the boot camp takes off nationally.
“I’ve made two trips to Boulder to look at what Gary is doing, and people in his classes have gone from being unable to sit down in a chair and get back up again by themselves to being able to be mobile and do many things themselves they hadn’t been able to do before,” Feucht said. “Gary himself said he was at the point where he couldn’t write a check because his hand writing was illegible. He started exercising regularly and then putting together this program, and now he’s able to write checks, he’s climbed a mountain, he gets around on his own now and he’s significantly improved.”
And for Feucht himself, he’s seen firsthand that exercise is key to managing the disease.
“Some of my symptoms have gotten a little worse, but if I exercise it minimizes the symptoms and nearly gets rid of them,” he said.
Boot camp comes to Eagle County
That’s why, on his second trip to meet with Sobol in September, Feucht attended a day-long formal training class along with other people from around the country to learn his boot camp techniques.
Feucht is bringing his newfound knowledge back to Eagle County. He’ll teach an exercise class at WECMRD Field House in Edwards on Nov. 5.
Local resident Ghiqui Hoffmann also attended the training and will help Feucht lead the classes here in Eagle County. The classes are free and open to anyone who wants to work on balance or general strength training.
“We’ll start out with exercises that essentially anyone can do,” Feucht said. “Like turn your head left as far as you can, then turn it right as far as you can.”
There are 14 exercises, including torso twists, eye movements and exaggerated facial expressions, before participants even get out of their chairs. Once on their feet, participants will do basic movements, like moving their feet, and then walking forward with steady balance. Vocal training — having people count out loud as they do each exercise — is also part of the class since Parkinson’s can affect a person’s vocal cords.
“Gary has done an excellent job covering everything in the body that Parkinson’s effects,” Feucht said.
Focus on the positive
At the local Parkinson’s support group, which takes place monthly in Edwards, attendees range from age 50 to 75, said Carly Rietmann, the Healthy Aging Program coordinator for Eagle County Public Health, who cofounded the group in 2012 with John Bade, an Eagle resident who has Parkinson’s disease. The meetings are very upbeat, Bade said.
“We don’t allow any negative comments,” he said. “We talk about the positive things that have come along during the month that have proven to be of some success in extending or slowing down the process that we’re going through.”
Often times presenters share valuable information. Neurologists and speech therapists have presented and Gary Sobol led a mini exercise class this summer.
“We just keep growing from word of mouth and letting people know the group is there,” Bade said.
When you walk into the meeting, you wouldn’t know that anyone has Parkinson’s disease, according to Reitmann.
“I think it’s because most of the people are super active and very strict with their exercise regime, and it helps them so much. I had one lady who said ‘I hadn’t wanted to go because I just didn’t want to see people who are worse off than I am. I told her ‘It’s not like that at all.’ It’s become a social time and all the attendees have become really good friends. It’s not what most people probably think it is.”
With that in mind, Feucht is ready to tailor the exercise classes to the ability level of the participants.
“We will try to be sensitive to where people are and meet them where they are and challenge them,” Feucht said.
In Boulder, Sobol’s classes have been so effective, he’s added additional, more challenging “circuit” classes.
Feucht is hopeful that the classes will be an encouragement and resource for Eagle County residents diagnosed with the disease.
“The support of a class means a lot, and once people are in it for as little as a few weeks, they see significant changes, significant improvement, that in and of itself will keep them coming back,” he said.