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The Helplessness Antidote

Friday April 24, 2015

There was no reason I deserved a visit from an angel. I didn’t believe in them at the time, nor do I now. Nevertheless, as I walked from my doctor’s office in a haze of questions, fears and old-fashioned misery, it was waiting for me. Waiting because a simple sentence had just laid waste to my plans, my dreams, my 43-year old life, “I think you have Parkinson’s Disease.”  

angel del spandex
How could I have Parkinson’s? How long could I simulate “normal”? When would I have to give up my job? What would this mean for my family? When should I tell my friends? The questions were silenced by a voice that rang with clarity and conviction.  “You have to exercise!” the angel’s voice intoned, “Or you will descend in no time in an ever-steepening spiral to complete incapacity.” The angel left me, in effect, with a little stone tablet bearing the 11th Commandment, “Move it or lose it.” It was a moment I think of as “The Visitation of the Spandex Angel”.                                                  

Where the angel got its information, I don’t know. This was over a decade ago, and though I burned up the Web in a search for something, anything, that could give me a straw to grasp, there was little there. Dr. Jay Alberts had yet to publish his signal discovery concerning tandem bicycling and the substantial symptomatic relief it can bring. There was no mention of the role Yoga, Tai-Chi and dance can play in aiding the crucial ability to balance, keeping us, PD patients out of hospitals with broken bones. There was nothing about the value of boxing, or weight-training or the big-movement strategy that now constantly make news in the Parkinson’s community.

I had nothing to go on beyond the urgent proclamation of my mystic visitor, and the conviction that, with my body under assault by this mysterious and destructive disease, I had to do all I could to protect the underlying strength and ability to move I still possessed.

So it was a matter of faith for me to get out of bed each morning, climb on my elliptical trainer and go as fast and hard as I could for a half-hour, five times a week. But it wasn’t long before it was clear to me that I was seeing mitigation of my symptoms. My tremor visibly subsided after a good exercise session, and speech improved. While out riding my bike, I would catch myself not only singing, but actually hitting the notes I was aiming for. And nothing dissipates the fog that rolls thick around my head in the mornings more effectively than exercise. These effects and the research that shows they are no mere fluke should be familiar gospel to anyone coping with PD.

But here are two additional reasons to move your body. The first is, beyond the benefits cited above, it just feels good. Should the day come at last when Parkinson’s Disease forces you into a wheelchair, you will at least have made the most of your ability to move while you could, and probably made that window in time when movement was possible larger than it would have otherwise been. Second, until these recent discoveries about exercise, all we could do was manage our decline. We were told our disease was progressive, incurable, and disabling, and we were helpless to do anything to change it. Helpless. Exercise can liberate us from this deadly feeling, freeing our spirits as we free our bodies.

Peter Dunlap-ShohlPeter Dunlap-Shohl
NWPF Blogger

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