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Keep moving: Exercise program helps those with Parkinson’s manage symptoms

By Chelsea Bannach Correspondent

Judi Sloane makes her away across the wood floor in a bright, sunny room with mirrored walls where she’s participating in an exercise class.

“Let’s go ahead and walk and take big steps,” says the instructor, Lori McCormick, a physical therapist and certified medical exercise specialist. “Let’s do an exaggerated arm swing. Head and chin up as much as you can.”

It’s not just any exercise class – it’s geared toward people with Parkinson’s disease, and the exercises aim to improve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. The class is held each week at Touchmark on South Hill, and is open to non-Touchmark residents with movement disorders.

“I can tell you that this is one of the best things I’ve ever been able to access in my life,” Sloane said of the class. “The camaraderie, the mutual support of students in the class. It has been a phenomenal opportunity.”

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement. Nerve cell damage in the brain causes dopamine levels to drop, leading to Parkinson’s symptoms. There is no known cure.

Sloane, 72, was diagnosed 12 years ago, but said the symptoms started showing up about 15 years ago. It began to seem as if the buttonholes on her sweaters were shrinking, for example, and she had to grip her phone while taking a walk to keep her hand steady.

“I went to the doctor after suspecting that it was Parkinson’s and sure enough, it was diagnosed,” she said. “I was shocked, actually. The first couple of months were difficult, but I had great counsel by my doctor.”

McCormick, Touchmark director of health and fitness, leads two evidence-based fitness classes there for people with Parkinson’s, called “PWR! Moves for People with PD,” and “Agility Training for People with PD.”

She says Parkinson’s causes bradykinesia, or slow movement, as well as tremors, loss of balance and stiffness.

“We specifically include exercises that are beneficial to people with Parkinson’s,” McCormick said. “We work on a lot of rotation. We work on a lot of things that challenge our balance.”

Those exercises include walking lunges, high knees, finger flicks, torso twists and more.

“We try to move with big movements and work with posture and flexibility,” she said.

McCormick recently attended the fourth World Parkinson Congress in Portland, which included health professionals, neuroscientists and people with Parkinson’s. It highlighted the latest scientific discoveries and medical practices, she said. McCormick said she was most interested in learning how to better help those with Parkinson’s live the fullest life possible by combating their symptoms through exercise and movement.

“The thing that amazed me most about that were all the brilliant minds working on better treatments and finding a cure for this disease,” she said.

While a cure has yet to be found, staying active helps.

“Parkinson’s is a moving target,” Sloane said. “It changes day to day. You have good days and you have not-as-good days. Having the opportunity to come to a class like this gives you balance.”

Sloane said the group helps participants mentally, as well as physically.

“We’re always really supportive of each other and we always try to make each other laugh,” Sloane said. “We just have a good time.”

She believes the stretches and moves she has learned have enabled her to keep her medication level the same over the years. The proper movements have also helped her enjoy the things she loves to do, including gardening and cooking, while controlling the disease’s effects.

Cyndi Cook, the regional director of the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation Inland Empire center, which offers a variety of classes and support groups, said apathy and depression often accompany the disease.

“It’s like this heaviness that makes them feel like they don’t want to leave the house,” Cook said. “It sort of holds them down from doing the next thing.”

The good news, though, is that classes such as the one Sloane participates in can combat that feeling.

“There are places where they can go find a community and life can have really good quality, even after a diagnosis with Parkinson’s,” she said.

Sloane has a similar message for others living with Parkinson’s.

“They don’t have to just go home and sit in a chair and wait for it to get worse,” she said. “There’s so much they can do through exercise and involvement with others. I’ve seen too many people who just give up.”

Of the class, she said, “It’s truly a gift.”

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