Center begins offering program after patients report exercise method helps flexibility, mobility
John White of Corvallis would like a weekend off from Parkinson's disease.
White, 55, a retired high school science teacher, knows that won't happen anytime soon. In the meantime, White gets relief from the rigidity caused by Parkinson's through Pilates, an exercise method invented in the early 20th century that emphasizes a connection between body, mind and spirit in exercises focusing on breathing, side bending, and extension, rotation and flexing of the spine.
"Pilates has made a big difference," said White, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's at 39 and who has used Pilates the last eight years. "When I meet somebody who has Parkinson's, I encourage them to try it. In terms of flexibility, balance and strength, it's amazing how it's changed people. They see improvement and it fuels their desire for more Pilates, more exercise."
White is among a number of patients at Oregon Health & Science University's Parkinson Center of Oregon whose testimonials about the benefits of Pilates in reducing disease symptoms spurred a pilot Pilates class for Parkinson's patients earlier this year. The success of the pilot, in turn, spawned a permanent Pilates course set to begin Monday in Portland at OHSU's new Center for Health & Healing at South Waterfront.
The class is offered from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. each Monday and Wednesday through Dec. 13. The cost is $50 for the 10-class series. It will be taught by Bettina Blank, a Portland-based Pilates instructor certified through two professional training and educational organizations, Pilates Method Alliance and Core Dynamics Pilates.
Julie Carter, R.N., associate professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine and associate director of the Parkinson Center of Oregon, said that while no research has been done on Pilates to prove its effectiveness in reducing Parkinson's symptoms, the improvement she's seen in patients who use the method is irrefutable.
"The reason I got interested in Pilates is because I believe in it as another modality" for treating symptoms of the disease, Carter said. "Two important aspects of Parkinson's disease are rigidity and balance problems, and these are addressed in Pilates. And people are just visibly more flexible."
Studies already are showing the benefits of exercise in reducing some Parkinson's symptoms. A recent study led by Charles Meshul, Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine and the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center's Neurocytology Lab, showed that rats with 90 percent loss of dopamine in the brain, a model for full-blown Parkinson's disease, regain some motor function following a four-week treadmill exercise regimen. Meshul's laboratory also found that exercise may be neuroprotective because it decreases levels of the brain chemical glutamate, which is found in higher levels when the brain is damaged.
In addition, Parkinson Center of Oregon researchers are planning to study several modes of exercise in clinical trials to determine which is most effective in improving mobility in Parkinson's patients. "The first step in this work is to try to sort out which is the most powerful exercise program to maintain mobility in Parkinson's disease," Carter said.
Blank, the Portland Pilates class instructor, believes Pilates is beneficial for people with Parkinson's disease because it focuses on breathing and maintaining flexibility through flexion, extension and rotation of the spine, and side bending.
"Some individuals have rigidity in their spines and their breathing is shallow. They lose their flexibility more so than other folks," she said. "Pilates encourages active breathing, breathing into the back and sides of the ribcage with a full exhalation. The exercises help maintain flexibility in the spine. They leave feeling better than when they came in. The movement patterns taught through Pilates and, more importantly, breathing are so key for them to help them feel better."
Blank added that Parkinson's patients are her best students.
"They're very determined. They have a mission. They want to feel better. And we get quite a bit done in an hour," she said. "I love working with them. That's the fastest hour of my day."
White, a former distance runner, said Pilates has allowed him to continue golfing, hiking and running, and he even helped coach a high school cross country team this fall. Best of all, it's helped him stay positive about living with Parkinson's.
"When I came down with Parkinson's disease, I started searching for things to keep me active," he said. "I've taken yoga classes, but Pilates works best for me. Parkinson's disease can be dark and depressing, but doggone, if there are things along the way that can diminish that, why not do it?"
For more information or to register for the Parkinson Center of Oregon's new Pilates class, call Lisa Mann, R.N., the center's nurse coordinator, at 503 494-5620 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reservations also are being taken for classes set to begin Jan. 8, 2007.