I’ve decided to post a couple updates in the next weeks as a midyear check on how I’m dealing with Parkinson’s and aging. Exercise heads my list; it’s usually at the top of any list of recommendations for dealing with Parkinson’s, heart disease, depression, arthritis… you name it.
Exercise is a key reason I’m in pretty good health today as an 82-year-old with Parkinson’s. Here’s my story.
Exercise Has Always Been A Big Part of My Life
I grew up in Ithaca, NY, where the bumper stickers read “Ithaca Is Gorges.” And where there are gorges, there are hills. The family didn’t have a car (as I keep reminding my kids), so walking and biking were “givens.”
I spent seven years attending classes at Cornell, whose campus was atop a hill about four miles from my house. So I climbed up and down that hill once or twice a day. (Cornell men would say you could tell senior coeds from freshmen: their legs were more muscular.)
Early in my 40-year career at BNA, I started biking to work, an easy three-mile ride. I must have seemed an oddball on that bike in the early 1960s, since there weren’t many others commuting that way then. I’d also take long bike rides on weekends, holidays and vacations. On out-of-town business trips, I’d search for a bike rental shop as soon as I arrived. I’ve loved the ocean-front bike paths in San Diego and LA, the embarcadaro in San Francisco, the lakefront in Chicago, Central Park in New York. Two of my favorite urban bike rides came during 1986 and 1996 visits to Beijing, when bikes greatly outnumbered cars on the streets.
Exercise and Parkinson’s
Biking continued to be a major part of my retired life until four years ago, when undiagnosed Parkinson’s — with its depression and balance issues — brought the treasured activity to a halt. I started walking instead, almost everyday.
As I’ve mentioned before, that time of undiagnosed Parkinson’s was probably the worst period in my life. I shudder when I think how close I came to selling the house I love and moving out of the neighborhood I love and into a retirement home in the center of downtown DC. The Parkinson’s diagnosis brought a renewed emphasis on exercise. And I felt ZEST for life again.
At the recommendation of my neurologist, I signed up for the BIG exercise program at nearby Georgetown University Hospital. This exaggerated-movement exercise program is designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s. BIG was developed by the Lee Silverman Voice Therapy organization, the same group that developed the LOUD voice exercise program for Parkinsonians dealing with common PD-related voice issues: soft voice, monotone, and imprecise articulation.
The BIG program, with its focus on exaggerated movements, is ideal for those of us with Parkinson’s, since we often walk in a slow shuffle with our arms hanging motionless. To counteract this tendency, the BIG therapists encouraged me to take big steps and swing my arms and upper body forcefully.
The program focuses on seven daily exercises, each completed to the count of ten. This technique incorporates LSVT’s LOUD program, since we shout out the count. This program has really helped me. I typically throw myself into these exercise regimens with an enthusiasm that soon erodes, and I stop. With BIG, I’ve stuck with it because I see the benefits.
My BIG therapist suggested I also try the hospital’s physical therapy department program of instruction in pelvic floor exercises for incontinence — adaptations of the Kegel exercises for women dealing with incontinence. They had an immediate positive impact. Within a week, I was getting up only once a night for a bathroom break, not three or four times. I can now sit through a movie without a men’s room break. Freedom!
Some Recent Exercise Boosters I’ve Come Up With
Like so many others, I spend way too much time sitting, especially in my chair by the computer. I’ve started using a few tricks to get me off my duff:
- I have a kitchen timer next to the keyboard set for 25 minutes. When the timer goes off, I force myself to do a few of my BIG or pelvic floor exercises. Strolling into the kitchen for a snack is NOT exercise!
- I keep the phone on the other side of the room. I must get up to make or take calls, and I remain standing while on the phone. Sometimes I walk around; other times I’ll do a few Kegel exercises while talking. Multi-tasking, anyone?
- I occasionally stand for a few in-place exercises, maybe just balancing on one foot, when watching a YouTube video or waiting for the computer to do something.