Vail Daily column: Exercise gives hope to Parkinson’s patients
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive chronic disease in which dopamine-producing neurons, which influence body movement, gradually disappear from the brain, causing movement disorder as well as other less obvious symptoms. It is the second most prevalent neurological disorder after Alzheimer’s, and it strikes over 60,000 people in the U.S. each year. The Parkinson Association of the Rockies estimates that there are 17,000 people living with Parkinson’s disease in the Rocky Mountain region. As of yet there is no cure.
Most people receiving the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s are given few options to help control the symptoms and progression of the disease. Medication and deep brain stimulation as well as a healthy lifestyle are typically mentioned. Exercise is stated as being helpful, but most doctors do not explain why or the vital role it can play.
Research over the past few years has shown that exercise is neuro-protective. This means that it protects the dopamine neurons that remain in Parkinson’s, thereby slowing or possibly stopping the loss of function and the progression of disease.
Traditionally it was believed that once the brain was fully formed in childhood, there could be no further brain development. Research over the past few years has shown this to be false. Both animal and human studies have shown that exercise promotes neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to reorganize itself. New neural pathways may be created, so that lost function may be restored in the newly-formed pathways.
In theory this sounded great. Could there in fact be something that we could do to lessen symptoms, to slow or stop progression? Was there really some hope? When I heard about a six-day retreat with exercise and Parkinson’s as its subject matter given by Dr. Becky Farley, the leading pioneer in research regarding exercise and brain change, I along with a few others from the Vail Valley signed up.
The PWR Retreat was nothing short of amazing. The 36 people with Parkinson’s ranged in age from mid-40s to 80-plus, from the newly diagnosed to someone who’s had Parkinson’s for 26 years, from all parts of the U.S. and Canada to as far away as Singapore. Symptoms ran from very slight to quite substantial. We were divided into groups according to how affected we were by the symptoms. Each group exercised for three hours each day, working at high intensity with both aerobic and skill acquisition movements. The results even in six days were remarkable. For example, when Tom arrived, his gait was shuffling, his gaze was at the floor, his manner completely unengaged. On the fourth day, returning from an hour of vigorous pole walking, Tom was bright-eyed, smiling, stepping right along as he listened to the accompanying therapist’s lively chatter. Spontaneous applause and high fives broke out as he joined the rest of us. Another gal, Angela, who is one of the top engineers in her field and who had been in a wheelchair for three years, joined the group of least affected by symptoms after attending four previous annual week-long retreats and continuing her daily regimen of intense exercise. These are but two examples of the difference that intense exercise can make. A majority of our time was spent on skill acquisition movements. These particular movements form the basis for all the movements of our daily lives, the very ones we lose the ability to perform because of Parkinson’s. After working on these for six days with high effort, we were able to see a definite improvement in our abilities.
Those of us from the Vail area were thrilled and excited to see for ourselves that there was great validity to the idea that exercise can indeed slow or even stop the progression of Parkinson’s, as well as allow us to regain lost function. We felt very strongly about this and wanted to bring this program back to our area, so that others with Parkinson’s without the opportunity to attend the retreat might benefit. With that in mind, two of us attended a workshop intensive through which we became certified instructors of Dr. Farley’s PWR4Life program. Although we have been teaching a Parkinson’s specific exercise class twice a week in the Vail Valley for 21 months and had trained with Gary Sobol in Boulder, we now feel ready to expand our program with this additional knowledge and training.
For information regarding Parkinson’s-specific exercise classes and individual training sessions, call Louanne Perfetti at 970-904-2555 or Gig Hoffmann at 970-331-1513.
Ghiqui Hoffmann lives in Vail.
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