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Dancing (& Biking!) with Parkinson's
Moving From a Shuffle to a Glide

Dance the Tango
Glen Curry and Leigh Pujado ready to move.

Parkinson's disease is a movement disorder. It often appears slowly with subtle signs like stiff muscles, general weakness or walking problems. Some people may experience tremors in the hands or head. Over time, it gets progressively worse, especially if left untreated. Although the speed of decline varies tremendously from person to person.

Treatment for Parkinson's includes pharmaceuticals, surgery (implanting a deep brain stimulator) and exercise. Parkinson's patients typically go through five stages of the disease, and I usually see them at my training center in the first or second stages.

Five Stages of Parkinson's

Stage 1 - Tremors or shaking in one of the limbs. Posture and balance can deteriorate and abnormal facial expressions may occur.
Stage 2 - Symptoms begin affecting both sides of the body (bilateral). Balance and walking can become problematic and routine physical tasks become more difficult.
Stage 3 - Walking straight and even standing may no longer be possible. Physical movements slow down considerably.
Stage 4 - Walking may be possible, but it's usually very limited while rigidity and bradykinesia are often visible. Full time care is often required at this point and daily tasks may become impossible to complete. Strangely the tremors or shakiness that were prominent in earlier stages may diminish or vanish completely at this point.
Stage 5 - The disease takes over physical movements and many people are unable to stand or walk. Round-the-clock nursing care is typically required at this point.

My primary job is to help them with balance and keep their bodies moving. Without regular work, someone with Parkinson's can lose mobility and develop a stooped posture and a shuffling gait. The longer it goes on, the more dependent they become on family and caregivers and the worse their condition can get. As movement decreases, Parkinson's patients are more prone to falls, fracturing or breaking bones and seriously hurting themselves.

Several studies have shown that regularly engaging in strength training and balance exercises can delay the onset of the more serious symptoms. But for some people, traditional exercises and balance work doesn't seem to do much good. They want to walk, but their heads just can't seem to tell their feet what to do.

In one client, the disease had progressed to the point where walking across the room could sometimes be a challenge. But then one day, a very special tune came on the radio. My client looked up, smiled and said what a wonderful song it was to dance to. Up went the arms, the body straightened out and suddenly my client was moving across the floor almost effortlessly. My client, who could barely walk from one side of the gym to the other, could dance that distance with minimal effort.

I couldn't believe my eyes. When I asked my client to walk back, the stooped posture and shuffling gait returned.

I started looking into dance therapy, and it turns out there are many small studies on it. Most have too few people in them to be considered definitive, but almost all of them showed benefit. People who have trouble walking, may be able to keep mobile by dancing instead. Plus, people who regularly engaged in dance lessons retained more mobility, for longer, than those who didn't dance.

What happens with Parkinson's is that everything gets rigid. When a Parkinson's patient turns their head, their neck, torso, hips and legs all move together in the same direction. Try walking like that and you'll notice it makes you really unsteady.

When you're dancing, you have to move different parts of the body in different directions. Plus you often take bigger and more exaggerated steps than normal. When you take dance lessons, those exaggerations you learn help keep your body trained for smaller steps and movements used in everyday walking.

Several types of dance are being explored for therapeutic treatments including the tango, waltz and fox trot. Interestingly the people who practiced the tango seemed to do as well and in some cases better than the other options. I'll keep you updated if researchers learn why.

A typical result was like the one reported from a study authored by Madeleine Hackney and Gammon Earhart. They reported that, "Both dance groups improved more than the control group, which did not improve. The tango and waltz/foxtrot groups improved significantly on the Berg Balance Scale, 6-minute walk distance, and backward stride length. The tango group improved as much or more than those in the waltz/foxtrot group on several measures."

Now, when my clients who have Parkinson's seem "stuck", I have them push through using dance steps. I'm more aware of the music that's playing so I can keep them engaged with songs from their younger days. For those with the time, I've suggested they look into some kind of weekly or bi-weekly dance class for their cardio sessions.

If you or someone you love is struggling with Parkinson's and mobility, dance therapy is something to consider. As for me, I'm going to brush up on my tango.


UPDATE: 4/24/2016

Dr. Jay Alberts at the Cleveland Clinic found a 35% improvement in Parkinsons symptoms with patients who rode tandem bikes. Full details are in the video below.


UPDATE: Catching Parkinson's EARLY

There are three early warning signs of Parkinson's that should never be ignored.

1. The tendency to “act out one's dreams while asleep” is one of the most important, according to Dr. Claire Henchcliffe, director of the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Institute at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

2. Loss of your sense of smell.

3. Small or subtle changes in cognition.

If you start exhibiting these symptoms, and suspect Alzheimer's, it's important to have your dopamine levels checked. You should also meet with a neurologist that specializes in movement disorders for a thorough check.

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5/24/2015
Updated 4/24/2016
Updated 8/8/2018