The day I received my diagnosis in October of 2008, the neurologist recommended meditation and exercise as the best way to help manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s. When I told him about the amount of exercise I would typically get in a week, he admitted that what I was doing was far more than his clinic could offer me.
Exercise is critically important in healing any health condition. It is essential for a healthy body, mind and spirit! Personally, I love being active and I believe exercise has played an important role in the beginnings of my recovery! The question is what exercise is best? I think the simple answer is, whatever feels best and whatever you enjoy! As long as you do something! My exercise routine typically looks like this:
- Walk for an hour almost every day, usually in the morning, always outside and regardless of the weather conditions. The colder the temperature in the winter, the more layers I put on. My walking route typically takes me along the lake where I get to watch the many birds and waterfowl that inhabit the area, which makes it even more awesome.
- 15 minutes to a half hour of push-ups, stomach crunches, balancing, stretching and yoga poses, three to five days a week.
- In the evening when I teach martial arts (2-4 hours … 4 nights a week), I do various exercises: warm-ups (jumping jacks, knee raises), cardiovascular (running), strengthening (push ups, lunges), balancing and martial arts techniques (strikes, kicks, blocks, katas, etc).
In the summer, I also swim when I can … I don’t swim in pools because I don’t like the chlorine … and I play a few rounds of golf … I love golf! I used to ride my bike a lot, but I’ve pretty much given it up due to the loss of control in my left leg and tension in the back of my neck. Otherwise, I love bike riding! In the winter, I do a little downhill skiing which is great, as long as I stay warm. I learned last winter that being cold really exacerbates my symptoms.
I would describe my exercise level as light. While I do a lot, I no longer do intense workouts. I don’t enjoy it and I don’t feel good when I do it! Besides, Dr. Morse, the Florida naturopath who recommends the frutarian diet says that intense exercise creates lactic acid build up which further stresses cellular metabolism [which is already impaired due to a clogged up lymph system, which is at the root of all disease]. For more information, see my post on correcting body chemistry. I do enough to keep the body limber and the blood flowing. While I’m walking and stretching, I also practice living in the moment by bringing my attention to my breath and looking around and observing.
Joyful exercise is very helpful in eliminating stress. Eliminating stress means that the body stops producing the stressor hormones, such as, adrenaline and cortisol, and instead, produces the feel good hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that will alleviate symptoms and initiate recovery.
Other exercises I would highly recommend include Tai Chi, Qigong, yoga, any organized sport [like baseball], golf, tennis, cross country and downhill skiing and dancing. In fact, there is a dance program created specifically for people with Parkinson’s.
Exercise walking: Last year I learned about exercise walking. This involves doing different exercises, like bouncing a ball, while walking. I learned about it from a fellow I encountered while walking one day. After giving it a try, I discovered that when I exercise walk three symptoms that I typically experience go away. These symptoms include loss of control in my left leg, clenching and tension in my left hand and shuffle walking. This discovery has made walking far more enjoyable. Now when I walk, I bounce a ball or twirl a martial arts bostaff or walk with walking polls.
Muscle memory: Another important aspect of exercising involves muscle memory. I recently discovered this fascinating concept from a friend who told me about an interview she had seen with Michael J Fox. During the interview, Fox spoke about muscle memory. He said that when he plays hockey, he has no symptoms. His body remembers what to do and for some reason, the symptoms he typically experiences go silent.
I used to play baseball, so I thought I would give it a try. So I grabbed my baseball glove and a rubber ball and went across the street where I tossed the ball against the wall of a school and started shagging grounders. Much to my amazement, I was able to throw the ball, move back and forth and pick up the ball as it bounced towards me as if nothing was wrong. It was a thing of beauty!
Intrigued, I did some on line research, but couldn’t find the interview with MJF, nor could I find any information on similar experiences. I did find a description of muscle memory on Wikipedia … “When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task [through the creation of specific neuro-pathways … my words], eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, typing in a PIN, playing a melody or phrase on a musical instrument, martial arts, or performing different algorithms for a Rubik’s cube.”
I also found a chat room from a few years ago where people experiencing Parkinson’s spoke about muscle memory from the perspective of retraining muscles to perform activities, like walking. They spoke about having to consciously think about walking properly, even going so far is to exaggerate the movements in order to walk without shuffling.
This got me to thinking about a few things:
- Although I have lost the use of my left hand for most activities [I’m not able to type with it or fret my guitar], I can tie my shoes up like there is nothing wrong with it
- I shuffle walk, but I run normally
- I sometimes have difficulty moving my feet and legs [for example, when I’m standing at the counter in the kitchen and try to turn to my left, sometimes it feels like my left foot is frozen to the floor] and yet I can do knee raises and karate kicks with both legs as if there’s nothing wrong with me
- when I toss a ball back and forth between my hands, my balance is fine [otherwise, I’m like a cork in a rough sea]
- I can swing a golf club normally
While this is very puzzling, it is also very encouraging! If the body can run normally, if it can do karate kicks, if it can tie up shoes and if it can play a sport just like the good old days, it gives me great hope that it is capable of doing anything. So now, I’m on a mission to retrain my body [or perhaps, to help it remember how to function normally] by doing big, exaggerated, aggressive movements. Here are some of the things I do:
- Force myself to walk normally taking long strides and placing my foot down heel-to-toe
- Knee raises while I walk
- Arm raises while clenching and unclenching my fists [do it as fast as possible]
- Go up the stairs two at a time
- Come down the stairs with a bounce [ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump]
- Perform various dance steps
I’m also practicing my karate kicks, strikes and blocks with more zest and enthusiasm. The idea is to show my body that I’m in charge and at the same time, stimulate the brain cells that produce dopamine and serotonin.
While I may not understand the physiology of what I am doing [it may be that when the brain uses the neuro-pathways it has created for certain activities, the fear-based fight/flight response at the root of PD symptoms is temporarily suppressed], I know it’s helping and it’s giving my confidence and my spirit a huge lift. I also believe that it’s helping me to recover!
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of joyful exercise. Like laughter and a healthy diet, it is essential for healing!