AURORA | Activities like boxing, singing and yoga might be the best medicine for people with Parkinson’s disease.
At least that’s the opinion of physical therapist Meredith Roberts and musical therapist Rebekah Stewart, who together hosted Parkinson’s Warrior May 19 at the The Aurora Center for Active Adults. The biannual event — another is slated for the fall on a date to be determined — aims to help people with Parkinson’s learn how to battle the disease with exercise and other therapy. Roberts has developed and teaches a host of similar exercise classes in Aurora and around the Denver-metro area, all of them designed to help people cope with Parkinson’s in a healthy way.
“I found Parkinson’s to be the most challenging of the diagnoses,” she said. “When I went to school, there weren’t a lot of options. Give them a walker, give them a wheelchair, make them safe — and that was about it.”
According to the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s, exercise has been found to improve mood and balance, while reducing stiffness and fatigue. Roberts said there is no medication to slow the disease besides exercise.
Anne Green, a cheerful 70-year-old who attended the May 19 workshop and is a regular at many of Roberts’ other classes, agreed.
“It’s the only solution to the problem,” she said. “There are lots of programs around, and each group becomes a support group itself.”
At the May 19 workshop, Roberts and Stewart gave examples of home exercises for people with Parkinson’s and explained how and why the exercises help.
“Music and movement is medicine,” Roberts explained.
She said proper exercise for Parkinson’s has to be complex and intense, but fun. Roberts said boxing is one of the best workouts because it includes cardio and requires more thought, like multi-tasking and using muscles asymmetrically.
Research can help determine what works best for each individual, but Roberts said those with Parkinson’s benefit most if they keep a steady routine. Exercising five or six days a week is best, because quitting or taking time off could actually make the pain and stiffness worse, she said.
Before getting into a routine, however, Roberts suggested getting the permission from a doctor. After that, she said keeping up with a therapist or coach is recommended for maximum benefits.
“If you don’t use it, you lose it. So, let’s use it, and improve it,” she said. “If we are going to use it like medicine, think of it like medicine.”
A key component to the “medicine” of exercise and physical therapy is music, according to Stewart, because it adds value to the exercise. Tunes substitute as a timekeeper when that part of the brain is unable to do it internally, something Stewart said is called rhythmic auditory stimulation. She said listening to the music while exercising or walking has been found to increase stride lengths and helps muscles work together.
One of the exercises demonstrated was simply walking heel to toe, around a chair, to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” As the music went on, the steps to the beat became more synchronized and strides increased.
Another element of music with its own health benefits is singing, which Stewart said loosens the muscles used to swallow and talk. It also helps with that aforementioned multi-tasking or dual-tasking, referred to by Roberts.
To demonstrate, Roberts and Stewart played novelty song “Witch Doctor” and had everyone sing along, exaggerating their facial expressions and achieving exercise — along with some welcome comedic relief.
“‘Witch Doctor’ … always seems to be a crowd-pleaser,” Stewart said. “It is great for working on articulation.”
Nancy Williams Johnson, a sardonic 72-year-old at the workshop who attends many of Roberts’ other classes (including her Parkinson’s support group) said she enjoyed the support the therapists and others in the group offer.
“We learn from each other and support each other,” she said. “We have fun.”
Area Parkinson’s disease activities
Power Punch Boxing
Led by Meredith Roberts and Alejandro Ayala every Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Title Boxing Club, 9650 E. Arapahoe Rd, Greenwood Village. Care partners welcome.
PWR! Class: Exercise for Brain Changes
Led by Meredith Roberts every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Garden Plaza of Aurora Multi Media Room, 14221 E. Evans Ave., Aurora. Care-partners welcome.
Good Vibrations Music and Movement Class
Led by Rebekah Stewart of Rehabilitative Rhythms every Thursday at 1 p.m. at Rehabilitative Rhythms, 2222 S. Fraser St., Unit 2, Aurora.
Parkinson’s Support Group
Led by Meredith Roberts the second Tuesday of every month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Aspen Room, 2888 S. Heather Gardens Way, Aurora.