Exercise class empowers people with Parkinson’s

Class participants see physical improvements, grow confidence and build community support
February 17th, 2016

The benefits of regular exercise are undeniable. But for a person with Parkinson’s disease, an exercise program can enable them to walk their dog, drive a car or prevent serious injuries.

“Parkinson’s won’t kill you, but you will die with it,” said Jim McHugh, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about five years ago. “This class is one thing you can do for yourself.”

McHugh joined UCHealth’s Aspen Club Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery exercise class in an effort to manage his symptoms.

Susan Coulter, who has Parkinson’s disease, has been attending a PWR class for more than a year. It wasn’t until she started regular exercise that she gained back her hand-eye coordination and was able to drive again.

“People with Parkinson’s lose their flexibility and usually early in the disease, and it relates to their balance,” said Dr. Margaret Schenkman, PhD, PT, director of physical therapy at UCHealth’s Anschutz Medical Campus. “This makes it hard to do daily activities.”

Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system, causing tremors, muscular rigidity and slow, imprecise movements. No two people have the same symptoms or are affected the same way, Schenkman explained. But what experts do know is that exercise helps.

“It is evident that exercise can be beneficial to people with Parkinson’s disease,” she said. “There are underlying issues that go along with Parkinson’s, and even if you can’t stop that tremor, if you can improve overall physiological function you still improve life. In other words, it may be really important to improve flexibility, retain lower and upper body strength, and preserve cardiovascular function for people to function as well as possible within the constraints of the disease.”

Schenkman is part of the team working on the Study in Parkinson Disease of Exercise (SPARX) trial at the University of Colorado. It is in its last year of evaluating how different intensities of exercise improve symptoms of Parkinson’s. A secondary analysis will look at the frequency of exercise related to symptom improvements, she said. The study is important because it will help to establish how vigorously and how frequently people with Parkinson’s disease should exercise for the best results.

But patients like McHugh, or class participants Susan Coulter and Michele Van Wormer, don’t need a trial to tell them exercise helps — they are experiencing it firsthand.

Before McHugh started PWR classes a year and a half ago, he had been falling frequently — a dangerous risk for someone on a blood thinner. But it wasn’t only the risk; Parkinson’s was preventing McHugh from doing things that made him happy.

“I always enjoyed walking, so to have to fear something I enjoyed was awful,” he said.

He was referred to the PWR class while receiving care at UCHealth Metro Denver. He started attending the Denver PWR class two days a week. It was his classmates who encouraged him to try more classes, so when a PWR class started in Fort Collins, near where he lives in Loveland, he added two more days to his weekly regimen.

“We work on balance and overall flexibility, and there is an intellectual component so it keeps my brain sharp,” McHugh said. “I’ve noticed an increase in my energy level. A person with Parkinson’s, if left alone, will tend to sit — you’ve got to work and keep moving. And I’ve noticed a difference in the way I move. I’m more animated, and I’ve got more motion in my arms and legs.”

Before Coulter started attending PWR, she had stopped driving.

“I had lost that hand-eye coordination,” Coulter said.  “But now I have that coordination back and am confident that I’m quick enough.”

The PWR class focuses on exercises that help with people’s daily life activities, said class instructor Hillary Beck-Gifford, a fitness specialist contracted by UCHealth’s Aspen Club to teach the level two PWR class.

There are two levels: level one is for people who have trouble with mobility and balance, and is offered through the City of Fort Collins and UCHealth’s physical therapy department. UCHealth’s Aspen Club hosts level two classes for people who can walk without the use of assistive devices.

“Many people with Parkinson’s move in a very small way — their motions get limited — so we try to go big in class,” Beck-Gifford said. “The class focuses on the activation of the brain, like shifting weight from foot to foot. Many people with Parkinson’s freeze and can’t move because they can’t shift that weight, and you can’t move if your weight is on both feet.”

Level two classes are offered on Mondays and Thursdays, and are open to the community. A two-month commitment is required for around $40. The next session starts in March.

“There are huge positive things that come out of this class,” Beck-Gifford said. “These participants build a community with each other.”

For Van Wormer, it’s not only the physical improvements she’s noticed. She said the family of mutual supporters as well as the confidence she’s built are also very important benefits of the class.

“Empowerment,” she said. “That’s what it’s about — empowerment.”