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Published on October 09, 2015

Outracing Parkinson’s—by groovin’ to the oldiesOutracing Parkinson’s—by groovin’ to the oldies

I was so impressed by the people in this program and their spirit of fun while they were doing something great for their bodies. They were very welcoming to me – and who wouldn’t be inspired by Bob Haff’s wicked watusi? – Susan Moeller

Steve Swidler is fighting Parkinson’s disease with a stationary bike, a water bottle, and a big dose of Chubby Checker.

Swidler was one of eight Parkinson’s patients in a class at the YMCA Cape Cod on a recent Wednesday, peddling on spin bikes to the beat of rock ‘n’ roll, working to build muscle tone and beat the tremors, loss of balance, muscle rigidity and apathy that accompany the disease.

Instructor Bob Haff, as lean and compact as a power bar, moved among the riders. Haff gave encouraging pats, checked the pedal revolutions per minute, suggested water and did a pretty decent version of the hustle.

“Ralph’s rockin’ out,” Haff yelled over the sound of the 1958 hit, “Do You Want to Dance?” as Ralph Tomasian pumped his arms above his head and kept on peddling.

Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder causing certain nerve cells in the brain to slowly degenerate, reducing their ability to produce critical chemicals such as dopamine that control voluntary movements, said Dr. John A. Hamjian, a neurologist with Cape Cod Healthcare.

There are about 1 million Parkinson’s patients in the United States and most are over 60, Dr. Hamjian said. There is still some mystery about the cause, which seems to be both environmental and hereditary.

Changes in the brain develop 15 or 20 years before obvious symptoms such as tremors, Bradykinesia (slowing of motor skills), loss of balance, rigid muscles, depression and a flat affect.

Treatment for Parkinson’s includes medications that mimic the normal production of dopamine in the body, as well as surgery and stimulators that work in the brain similar to the way pacemakers regulate the heart. But recent studies by the Cleveland Clinic and others [pdf] show that vigorous and regular exercise helps alleviate Parkinson’s side effects.

“You have to work on reducing Parkinson’s symptoms that medication doesn’t help: strength, balance, endurance, reducing pain and stiffness, and also reducing the risk of falls,” Dr. Hamjian said, noting that exercise only helps if you keep at it.

The Cape Y’s eight-week, three-day-a-week class started in August after a year of lobbying by Swidler and fellow Parkinson’s patient Christine Ludwig. Both knew Haff, who taught spinning at another gym, and Ludwig had tried spinning with good results in Florida.

They recruited Haff to teach at the Y, which now runs the program as approved by the Cleveland Clinic under the national YMCA’s Pedaling for Parkinson’s flag.

The first Cape class has nine patients. The cost is free to Y members and $100 for nonmembers and requires doctor’s approval. Caregivers attend for free and there are four in the current class. A new session starts Oct. 26.

Ludwig, 73, who splits her time between Dennis and Florida, discovered spinning after reading a magazine article about another Parkinson’s sufferer, Dave Anderson, who had written a book about exercise for Parkinson’s patients.

A retired vice president of sales technology for an insurance company, Ludwig was diagnosed 10 years ago. With Anderson, she co-authored “Notes From Movers and Shakers with Parkinson’s” and is a cycling believer.

“I have been very, very actively exercising since I was diagnosed,” she said. “I was always a jogger … . Then I started falling.”

Ludwig says she “jumped on a bike” at a spin class at the Sarasota Family YMCA and was part of a study of 18 patients there. Class members reported good results, some even forsaking their walkers for a day or two after spin class, she said.

“I know I feel more grounded, my balance is much better,” she said. “I’m not hesitant in the way I walk or step.”

Rock, not rap

Swidler, 81, and a Dennis resident, said he’s been surprised by what he can do after spinning here and in Florida.

“It gives you confidence to try something more difficult,” he said. “I have weakness in my legs. I’m actually going at a higher rpm than I thought I could do.”

At first, Ludwig went to the regular spin classes at the Cape Y. Her only issue: “The rap music doesn’t go with 70-year-old minds.”

Choice of music aside, many Parkinson’s patients might not be ready for the high rpms of a regular spin class, said Patience Smith-Cabrera, the group exercise coordinator at the Y. Usually, spin cyclists aim for 60 to 110 rpms; the Parkinson’s class aims for 80 to 90 rpms for 40 minutes, according to Haff.

Smith-Cabrera admits she was a bit nervous at the thought of Parkinson’s patients on bikes but is now a big fan.

“It’s a big step for somebody to come in,” she said. “You could have that trepidation to come into a gym, not knowing what to expect. … They’ve all come back. The fact that they are all still there is a huge thing.”

Everyone involved credits Haff and his volunteer helpers—Tom Dott and Gene Cadman—with setting the right goals, keeping up spirits and making things fun. No gym intimidation here.

“Maybe inside they took a big sigh of relief because it wasn’t a 25-year-old guy who was going to drive them up the wall,” said Haff, who retired as athletic director at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School and now coaches baseball at Cape Cod Academy.

There’s no rap on Haff’s playlist. His cyclists groove to the Beatles, Neil Diamond and The Temptations, with a dash of Elvis and Big Band. Or maybe a little country for Ludwig, who says she asked for something along the lines of, “I prayed for rich and skinny and I wound up short and fat.”

The class offers much more than physical benefits, Haff and class members said. Socialization is huge to help fight depression and anxiety and even to trade information about treatments and medication.

“I’ve seen a difference in their whole mental attitude,” Haff said. “They are very proud of their accomplishments. Right now as a group, they are very committed. I think, they’ve sort of taken back control of their lives.”

For more information about local resources for Parkinson’s patients, contact the Parkinson’s Support Network of Cape Cod.

For more information about Pedaling for Parkinson’s, contact the YMCA Cape Cod, 508-362-6500.