A Simple Treatment for Parkinson's Disease: Exercise

18 February, 2015

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health and Lifestyle Report.

More than six million people around the world suffer from Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's disease makes patients shake and their muscles difficult to move. The disease is incurable and only gets worse over time. Parkinson's usually affects older people.

Current treatments for Parkinson's are medicine and surgery. But lately many doctors and patients have become interested in a treatment that is simple, does not cost much and seems to be very effective. That treatment is exercise.

A Simple Treatment for Parkinson's Disease: Exercise
Gary Sobel, former marathon runner and Parkinson's Exercise instructor

"Pick it back up. Put it down. Right leg. Straight arm. Way back. one ... two ... three ..."

What you hear are 20 senior citizens exercising. They stretch their arms forward and then swing them far back. The instructor watching them closely is a 75-year-old man named Gary Sobel.

"Here we go! Catch! Hurl!..."

Mr. Sobel shows the class how to catch and throw -- or, as he says, hurl -- an imaginary ball. Everyone follows his instructions. But many of the students cannot stop their hands and feet from shaking. And some cannot straighten their bodies.

Everyone in the class has Parkinson's disease -- everyone -- even the instructor.

Parkinson's disease is an incurable brain, or neurologic, condition that can make walking and keeping your balance difficult. So, many patients avoid exercise. But these students exercise several times a week.

They say the exercise helps the symptoms of Parkinson's. But they also come for another reason -- the friendship.

An instructor who understands

The exercise classes have been important for the instructor, too. When he was younger, Mr. Sobel was an athlete. In his early 60s, he was still running in long races. But in 2008, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
The condition became severe. He could not get out of bed without help. He could not walk easily. He could not drive a car.

"Walking was a problem because I would trip and fall. Getting in and out of a car - I couldn't drive anymore because my reflexes were too slow. I didn't trust myself if I had to make a sudden stop, you're just too slow with your movements."

Doctors told Mr. Sobel the best way to avoid accidents and injury was to avoid exercise.

"In 2008 when you were diagnosed, you were told not to crack a sweat, take it easy. I'm serious."

So Mr. Sobel stopped exercising. He also avoided medications because he was scared of the side effects, the bad things they might cause. Then one day, his hands were shaking so much, he could not sign his name to pay a bill.

"I hit bottom that day, and I said, this is absolutely ridiculous, that I can't even write a check."

After this happened Mr. Sobel started to take low doses of Parkinson's medicine to reduce the shaking. Once the shaking lessened he started squeezing water from wet towels to strengthen his hands. That simple exercise worked.

"It took about six weeks and I could write a check better than I ever did."

Mr. Sobel decided to build on his success. He moved on to exercises to strengthen his legs. Then he decided he wanted to help others. So, he trained to be an instructor.

Mr. Sobel has been teaching exercise classes for three years. In that time, he has helped thousands of people with Parkinson's.

In this class, he is teaching students how to walk fast, how to stop fast and even how to walk backwards.

"..in the count of three. One, two, three ... Stop!"

He says he pushes all his students to do more than they think they can.

"I want them tired. At the end of the day, I ask them if they're tired, and if they say 'yes,' I'm happy."

Philosophical shift in the medical community

The medical community noticed the success stories of Mr. Sobel and other Parkinson's patients who exercised.

Heather Ene, Parkinson's researcher

Doctor Heather Ene is a doctor at the University of Colorado. She specializes in movement disorders. She explains that many people have made a philosophical shift, or a change of thinking, about exercise and Parkinson's disease.

"There's been a complete shift towards exercise as a mainstay in Parkinson's disease."

Ms. Ene says new research about Parkinson's is making doctors change their advice to patients. Now, doctors are telling people with Parkinson's to exercise longer, more often and at higher intensity. She says exercise may help people remain more active for longer.

"It's not necessarily going to slow the disease progression such that people don't need medications. In fact, it's very unlikely that it's going to create that much difference. But it can be very helpful in slowing the transition to disability. That's part of what we're trying to do."

And, Dr. Ene says Mr. Sobel's exercise classes help the students with more than their physical health. She says the classes help students emotionally. They give the people a community. Students exercise among others with Parkinson's and learn from a man with Parkinson's.

"Five on the left. Five on the right. Are you ready? Here we go! Stop! Lift! Last one ... Stop! Lift! Stop! Lift!"

Back in the class, Mr. Sobel says the classes have also helped him fight this degenerative disease, a disease that gets worse over time.

"This is a degenerative disease that can get nasty. But I'm winning the battle right now, and I don't know how long I can continue to win the battle, but I'll do what I can."

As part of doing what he can, Mr. Sobel has trained over 100 instructors throughout the United States. These instructors use his methods of leading Parkinson's exercise classes. He has also helped start other classes for people with Parkinson's. These classes include yoga, Tai Chi and dancing.

For the Health and Lifestyle Report, I'm Anna Matteo.

Shelley Schlender reported this story for VOA from Boulder, Colorado. Anna Matteo wrote it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

patients n. people who receive medical care or treatment

stretchv. to move your muscles in a way that makes them long and tight

swing v. to move with a smooth, curving motion

reflexes n. actions or movements of the body that happen automatically as a reaction to something

hit bottomv. expression reach the lowest possible level or point

degenerative - adj. medical causing the body or part of the body to become weaker or less able to function as time passes