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Exercise Combats Effects of Parkinson’s Disease
By Jackie Russell, RN, BSN, CNOR

Exercise can exert a neuroprotective influence in older adults with Parkinson’s disease, slowing the degeneration of cells that contributes to its symptoms.                                         

In 1997, at the age of 50, Kathy Cooper was working full time as a federal employee at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Each week she traveled back and forth to Dayton some 120 miles from her home in Granville. She still found time to keep the books for her husband’s business on the weekends. During stressful times, she began to notice a slight tremor in her right thumb but ignored this annoyance since it didn’t impact her daily life.

Over the next seven years, the tremor gradually became more pronounced. She noticed her right arm didn’t swing normally when she walked, her gait was shuffling, and her posture was growing rounded and rigid. Getting out of the car or rising up from a chair became a struggle. She consulted a neurologist in 2004 and received devastating news when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) at the age of 57. Tremendous worry and disappointment consumed her thoughts. She wondered what quality of life her future would hold. She became disengaged from life, avoided social activities, and tried to hide her secret from everyone.

Physiologically, PD in older adults involves a drop in dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, regulates the level of brain activity needed to start or end a movement.  Lack of dopamine leads to inadequate muscle activation that results in slowness of movement, rigidity, impaired balance, poor posture, tremors, and lack of facial expression. Although there is no known cure, medications can diminish the symptoms.

Kathy Cooper’s turning point came late in 2004 when she consulted a new neurologist who encouraged physical therapy, daily exercise, and introduced her to a weekly exercise class for individuals with PD. Because she was reluctant to try the class, her husband, Bill, became her motivation. He encouraged her attend the exercise class just once and agreed to accompany her. After the class, Bill Cooper told his wife he thought perhaps her arm was swinging just a little more normally when she walked.  He became her cheerleader and suggested, “How about going to that class just once more?”  Kathy Cooper recalls that this started her on the road to a new independence and provided her with optimism. Perhaps she could take control of PD with exercise. Her symptoms slowly but surely began to improve.

Life-Changing Exercise
Initially led by a busy physical therapist who was also a university professor, Kathy Cooper’s exercise class was soon turned over to David Zid, a certified trainer with a special interest in the older adult client and PD.  “David changed my life,” she says.  He expanded the exercises, added strength and balance training, and convinced the class that daily exercise could have a neuroprotective effect on the brain. Exercise could preserve healthy brain cells and slow the degeneration of cells that contributed to Parkinson’s symptoms.

He used a Parkinson’s-specific fitness program he had developed called Delay the Disease. Zid added charisma, inspiration, and fun to the class that grew each week. Not only was it an exercise group, but it also became a source of camaraderie and encouragement for all who attended. Kathy Cooper found her symptoms improved rapidly if she performed some type of exercise every day. 

Soon her arm swing normalized, her ability to change positions became more fluid, and balance and flexibility improved. Even her handwriting became larger and more legible.  Her steps were bigger, her limp was gone, and her former stature returned.  She felt the most important change, however, was her mental outlook. Kathy Cooper says, “My demeanor has improved so much that my overall reaction to this affliction has become almost dismissive. My small voice has been replaced with a stronger one and overall, I feel as good or better than my preafflicted self.” Her husband agrees, adding, “My wife was old before her time with Parkinson’s disease. David Zid’s encouragement, daily exercise, and Kathy’s determination has given me my wife back. I am so grateful.”

A New Life
Now Kathy Cooper makes time every day to exercise.  If she is having an off day, she includes at least some stretching. She attends Zid’s group PD exercise class twice per week, uses the Delay the Disease DVD once or twice weekly, and walks at least a half-mile per day. She focuses on functional exercises and practices squats, rotation, and strength training.  These help her ability to get out of chairs and cars independently. She finds her driving has improved, and she actually enjoys performing household chores, even waxing her car without help.

New friends who participate in the PD exercise class especially fuel her spirit. She describes them as her “real” inspiration. Watching them improve weekly and comparing accomplishments gives her motivation.  If one of her classmates feels he or she didn’t really improve one week, Kathy Cooper will boost morale, suggesting, “But you didn’t get any worse, did you?”  She feels that her greatest achievement is not only learning to live with this disease, but that perhaps her life has even improved.  She has begun acting as a substitute leader for the PD exercise class, and hopes to soon lead her own weekly class.

Scientific Proof That It Works
Kathy Cooper is living proof that exercise can change the course of PD. David Zid and his partner, Jackie Russell, RN, CNOR, a nurse with a dedicated interest in the Parkinson’s community, have become popular speakers at Parkinson’s conferences. Russell has always been a firm believer in the benefits of exercise. But the effect of exercise on the symptoms of PD has brought a new meaning to the phrase “daily workout.”  Kathy Cooper has heard the partners’ presentation and believes they inspire the PD community with research news, exercise ideas, and stories of improvement.

They talk about the protective chemical that exercise induces in the brain. She delights in hearing them refer to her as a “super girl,” the class participant with the most robust improvement in symptoms. When she hears them talk about “the one gal in our class that no longer looks as if she has a disease at all,” she smiles.

The idea that something as simple as exercise may be neuroprotective is an exciting breakthrough. With overwhelming scientific evidence and convincing patient testimonials, there doesn’t seem to be a reason not to start an exercise program when diagnosed with PD.  Kathy Cooper’s story defines exercise as a way to empower individuals to take control of the disease with a proactive approach.

For additional information, visit the Web site at www.delaythedisease.com.

— Jackie Russell, RN, BSN, CNOR, is a Columbus, Ohio-based nurse and freelance writer. She has been published in Today’s Caregiver and the European Parkinson’s Nurses Network. She has been practicing nursing for 30 years, with a dedicated interest in the Parkinson’s community.