This article appears in Spring Healthy Living 2018.

No matter your age, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease is overwhelming. Parkinson’s is a serious, life-changing condition, but one that can be fought with exercise.

OhioHealth’s Delay the Disease is an exercise program being used in 20 states and Canada to help people with Parkinson’s manage symptoms and maintain quality of life. This fitness program is designed to empower people with Parkinson’s to take control of their disease, gain independence and regain a sense of moving with normality.

“It’s an evidence-based, patient-specific group exercise class that is remarkably effective. We’re fighting a hopeless disease with hope,” said registered nurse Jackie Russell, OhioHealth program development coordinator and co-founder with David Zid, director of movement disorders and musculoskeletal wellness.

About Parkinson’s

More than 10 million people are living worldwide with Parkinson’s, an elusive neurodegenerative disorder. Its physical progression can vary from person to person and its cure is unknown, leaving many patients feeling helpless and frustrated once diagnosed. The average age of onset is 60, but some people are diagnosed at 40 or younger.

“Early signs of Parkinson’s disease include slow, reduced amplitude movements, stiffness of muscles, tremor, soft voice, small handwriting and/or slow, shuffling gait,” said Dr. David Hinkle, OhioHealth neurologist, movement disorders. “Unfortunately, there is no cure or disease-modifying therapy available, so early detection is important primarily for understanding the cause of the symptoms and for starting a program of exercise and physical therapy. A neurologist is usually best suited to identify PD away from other causes of similar or overlapping symptoms.”

Key to the success of Delay the Disease is the brain’s capacity to change. Parkinson’s stops the brain from efficiently using dopamine, which leads to issues with movement, Russell said.

“Exercise allows dopamine to be used more efficiently. It retrains the brain to allow the body to have better posture, to take a bigger step, to get out of bed or rise from a chair,” Russell said.

Robust research has shown that exercise changes the way the brain rewires and learns. Through repetition it can relearn a task it may have lost to the disease, Russell said.

“The key is to practice a movement right after heart rate elevation. So we get the heart rate up and then practice what needs to be improved. You practice the behavior so the brain relearns it,” Russell said.

Program participants see such a statistical improvement in functional mobility that the symptoms of Parkinson’s can be put on hold or even reversed, Russell said.

“If they are on a walker suddenly they can use a cane. They can cut back on medication. Get up from a chair or bed independently. They are living their lives again,” Russell said.

About the program

Delay the Disease offers a variety of daily activity choices, including one-on-one and group classes for all fitness levels and stages of Parkinson’s. Delay the Disease has partnered with 50 YMCAs across the United States and is growing.

The program is designed for people in the early stages of Parkinson’s, “but it’s never too late,” Russell said.

“Delay the Disease has classes for the full spectrum: the person who is running 5Ks to the person who needs a wheelchair. Everyone can benefit,” said Hinkle. “At this time, the best ‘prescription’ based on the science is at least three sessions per week that involve aerobic exercise combined with task-specific movements, at least two sessions per week that involve balance training, and at least two sessions per week that involve resistance (strength) training.”