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Active healing: Exercise class serves Parkinson’s patients

By CANDA FUQUA, Corvallis Gazette-Times

When Mark Smith read that exercise can delay symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, he immediately searched the Internet for books and videos that would help him create an exercise plan.As a young, active man diagnosed with the degenerative neurological disease, he was more than disappointed with what he saw; he was depressed.

“What I found was, you sit down in a chair and you move your arms,” he said. “… That leaves you with almost no hope.”

He knew that the disease, which has no cure, was expected to continue to weaken his body and decrease his balance and range of movement. That was six years ago. Studies since then have verified the benefits of more vigorous exercise — especially the kind that focuses on balance.

But programs offering exercise specifically for Parkinson’s patients are limited, according to Dr. David Blatt.Blatt, who is Smith’s friend and exercise partner, also has Parkinson’s. The two met six years ago and soon began a Pilates class that focused on balance. The results have been better than they expected.

“For both of us,” Blatt said, “it was a turning point in that we started improving our condition instead of just slowing down how fast it was getting worse.”

The improvement encouraged them to bike, take ski conditioning classes and to box — anything to keep their muscles moving.Blatt and Smith say they are proof not only of the power of exercise but of a certain kind of exercise. Forcing the body to move faster than it wants to, performing difficult balancing exercises, juggling and playing soccer is more beneficial, Blatt said, than repetitive motions such as jogging or lifting weights.

“Fifteen years after I was diagnosed, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to walk,” Blatt said, “and I’m still running, playing soccer, hiking up South Sister and skiing down steep mountains.”

Blatt believes that beyond building muscle and improving balance, vigorous exercise actually stimulates the production of new nerve cells to replace some of those destroyed by the disease.

A former anesthesiologist, the 56-year-old opened a practice two years ago in which he consults with people who have Parkinson’s disease. He helps them cope, and he sets them up with fitness trainers.

It didn’t take long before the gym became his office. Since 2010, he has been a fitness trainer for people who have Parkinson’s and other chronic illnesses. He also looks for ways to get the word out about his program to more people.

“I started teaching other people because I was inspired to do that. I wanted to share with them the benefits I had gained,” Blatt said. “Now, what I’m trying to focus on is putting the program together on videotape that can be distributed to more people.”

A videographer has filmed some of the classes for Parkinson’s patients, which are held at Fitness over 50 and the Timberhill Athletic Club. Within a few months, Blatt hopes to have a product to distribute to trainers and people with Parkinson’s.He borrowed some methods and tailored them to fit people with Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.

“We took, for example, some of the exercises we learned in the ski conditioning classes and we scaled those down to a level that these people could safely do,” he said. His students vary in age and ability, but he always tries to safely challenge them.

“We do a much more aggressive exercise program than I have heard of done anywhere for Parkinson’s,” Blatt said. “And we do not like sitting in chairs. My philosophy is, if you’re trying to help someone improve their balance, you do so walking.” Read more.

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