Parkinson’s Disease


I am including Parkinson’s in my list of ailments because I have had experience with it; training people with Parkinson’s as I have studied and monitored their progress in strength, balance and agility.

Parkinson’s has been around for a long time; mentioned in ancient Indian texts and then by physicians in the Roman Empire. Originally termed the ‘shaking palsy’, it was finally named for the English doctor James Parkinson, who studied and treated the disease in 1817 and erroneously believed it to originate with lesions of the cervical spinal cord. It does not.

Parkinson’s originates in the brain, killing the cells that produce the neurohormone *dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals through the synapses (a tiny gap or pathway between cells) from nerve cell (neuron) to nerve cell. These cells form a circuit between the brain (command center) and the motor neurons of the muscles, controlling their movement, so when the pathway is interrupted or broken - by diminishing levels of dopamine - the signals between nerve cells and muscle cells become erratic and weakened. Tremors and trembling, loss of balance, rigidity, a shuffling gait, even constipation and intellectual impairment are symptoms of this breakdown. For example, the shuffling gate, accompanied by the lack of a natural swing in the arms is a sign that the signals between brain, feet and arms are not working properly. The circuit is mal-functioning.

*Dopamine has three functions relative to movement: The first is the stimulus or motivation to move, without motivation, there is no movement. The second is facilitating that movement by providing the pathway from cell to cell to make the movement possible then rewarding it with a feel good sensation of accomplishment. Thirdly, dopamine reinforces and builds the pathways required for movement, making it stronger and more assured with repetition. Like learning to correctly swing a tennis racket or golf club or driving a car, creating a ‘muscle memory’.

Think of this as an electrical connection between the brain and the body. When the wires (synapses – carrying dopamine) become frayed or broken, the electricity (signals) will not flow smoothly between the cells; the circuit misfires, short-circuits and eventually stops functioning.

While this breakdown is occurring, Parkinson’s also decreases the amount of neurotropic factors produced in the brain; these are the proteins that repair, grow and help regenerate the cells (neurons). So while the circuitry (synapses and cells) is deteriorating, so are the proteins that repair and stabilize it.

The 5 stages of Parkinson’s:

With early intervention and proper understanding and application of therapy, both pharmaceutical and natural (breath and movement), most people with Parkinson’s will live a full life without entering into the advanced stages described below.

Parkinson’s is challenging in the extreme, but not fatal. It takes discipline, both mental and physical, to hold the symptoms at bay, but I have seen it done, and hopefully have helped in the process.

It is necessary to recognize the symptoms in the early stages and take active measures to combat and control them. The less PD patients exercise and move, the faster the brain circuits will weaken and the muscles atrophy.

Parkinson's: Stage one,

the symptoms of Parkinson’s are generally mild: a slight tremor – often in one hand – with some minor changes in posture and facial expressions (less animation) and a slight variance, like one hand not swinging as much as the other, when walking. These symptoms do not usually interfere with daily activities.

Parkinson's: Stage two

includes more extreme tremors on both sides of the body; walking deteriorates and there may be a slight shuffling movement. The person remains independent but normal day-to-day tasks takes longer and require more concentration and effort.

Parkinson's: Stage three

is characterized by a loss of balance and much slower movements than in stage one or two. Falling is characteristic of stage three and daily activities are more difficult.

Stage four includes a far greater deterioration with balance. The legs are stiff and although it is possible to stand without assistance; it is not possible to walk without outside support. Living alone is no longer possible.

Parkinson's: Stage five

is severe. The legs are rigid to the point of being unable to stand and move. A wheelchair is required, along with round the clock nursing care. Speaking may be problematic and memory loss or Parkinson’s dementia is typical. Treatments and medications no longer give any relief. Constant care is required.

With correct exercise (breath and movement) and medication it is possible that people never get to the more extreme stages of three, four or five.

The intention of REAL STRENGTH NOW training is to teach the student to understand the body from the inside, out and become his or her own teacher. Everything else, health of mind and body, will flow from this training. BREATH IS LIFE.

My own personal experience

I have learned a great deal about Parkinson’s disease in the past ten years. The first person suffering PD - in the beginnings of stage two - came to me because he had heard I was involved with boxing (I was an assistant coach in London, England); he had read that the practice of Western boxing was being used successfully in Indianapolis to slow Parkinson’s symptoms. He asked if I would train him. My first question was why would boxing or rather boxing training (no sparring – no head trauma) be a treatment for PD?

The answer is:

Boxing, with its combinations of jabs, crosses, hooks and uppercuts coupled with footwork designed to enable a strike, block or evasion forces the untrained (in boxing) body to perform compound movements (using more than a single group of muscles or joint) that are unfamiliar to the brain and outside its control. These new movements - requiring a connection between the brain and body, when practiced repetitively - force the brain to create new circuits; this is neuroplasticity, meaning the ability of the brain to change and modify (like malleable plastic) in order to accomplish new and unfamiliar tasks. While this is happening, the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine - the hormone that is depleted by PD – is stimulated in the cells responsible for its production.

Exercise, including boxing drills, also increases the production of neurotrophic factor, the protein responsible for cellular repair and regeneration.

In fact, in over one hundred clinical studies, correct exercise (strenuous enough to elicit certain chemical responses in the body) has proven to be as effective as medication – dopamine – in the relief and delay of PD symptoms. Most treatment involves a combination of both, exercise and medication.

The important thing is to keep moving.

Conscious breath facilitates conscious movement.

Correct diaphragmatic breathing increases blood flow to the brain, aiding in the longevity of the dopamine producing cells and the longevity of the synapses connecting cell to cell.

When I practiced Japanese Shotokan style karate, over the course of nearly twenty years, we began and ended each class with a practice called Mokuso, or seated breath, a practice intended to channel breathing, increase concentration and foster conscious movement during training in order to prevent injury, followed by the relaxation of the body and mind after training. In a traditional martial art in which relaxation, timing and self-control is held in the highest esteem, this seated breath is similar to the Zen concept of mushin. Mushin is a state in which the mind is free of pre-conceptions. Anger and fear have no place in Mushin. It is without ego. There is no contradiction here. Conscious movement does not mean self-conscious movement. An opponent or training partner is not viewed with the prejudice that doubt or fear or anger creates. The concentration is placed upon the exact delivery and control of the technique. Timing and distance are important. Relaxation and fluidity are paramount.

If Parkinson’s is viewed as the opponent, seated breath or meditation serves to relax the mind, dispel fears and pre-conceptions and prepare the body for the practice of the conscious controlled movement necessary to combat the opponent, PD.

I begin and end all strength and movement sessions with Mokusu, or seated breath. Using it to relax and center the mind prior to conscious exercise. After seated breath I move to the breathing stick to establish breath and movement, then to boxing – more breath and movement - and finally to strength training.

Conscious walking (attention to feeling and lifting the feet and swinging the arms in coordination with the footsteps) – is practiced between exercises, generally walking in circles around the gym between boxing rounds or ‘consciously walking’ from one piece of equipment to another during strength training.

Establishing an awareness of breath, maintaining balance, developing breath in coordination with movement and building real functional strength are the goals of real strength training, followed by taking these functions out of the gym and into everyday life.

I often compare Parkinson’s to an exaggerated and sped up process of ageing.

We are all ageing. It is how we accept and delay this natural process that confirms our quality of life.

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