Many kinds of Recreational Movements* (RMs) seem to help me to move better. Below I classify a few of the RMs that I enjoy and offer insight as to why these activities may be of particular value to a PwP, based on personal experience.
Team Sports – Team sports such as Basketball, Ultimate Frisbee, or Soccer, are fast paced and force your nervous system into a state of heightened awareness. I believe this is so because of the ever evolving and mentally taxing conditions during game play. Too occupied with the higher level objectives of the sport, the focus of the higher level brain is forced away from the movement itself. Consider basketball as an example. The higher level brain is occupied with keeping track of where his/her teammates and opponents are, if he/she should make a break for the basket, or post-up. Meanwhile, the bodies lower level faculties required for controlling movement seem to snap back to attention under the anticipation of the impending need to react rapidly. Now, incredibly the lower level brain seems to remember how to control the body. When the person in control directs the body to run down court, intercept a pass, or take a jump shot, the body complies smoothly and with precision. This happens automatically, without intervention from the higher level brain, as it’s supposed to. The downside of these types of activities are they are tremendously stressful on your body and can cause excessive wear and tear over time. Especially to your feet, knees, and hips. This can be particularly true for PwP such as myself who, despite the improvements to movement due to participation in the activity, still may have subtle Parkinson’s related movement irregularities that make us extra prone to these injuries.
Indoor Rock Climbing – Climbing taxes the body in a variety of ways that promote better movement. PwP often struggle with awareness of our bodies in space. Over time, Parkinsons tends to put us into a small box. Our reach shrinks and our movements become much reduced. As a result, It becomes very difficult for us to assess how far we can reach, for example to grasp a climbing hold. However, to make progress up the route, assessing our reach becomes a critical skill. But, as we are not simply climbing a ladder, this is only the beginning of the challenge. Rock climbing handholds are immensely varied. They range from easy to grasp with plenty of traction, to so tiny you can barely get a finger on it, and anywhere in between. Moreover their shapes and orientations are positioned in a variety of ways that can make then either a great hand (or foot) hold or no help at all, depending on how it is approached. Further complicating matters is that the walls are not flat. They lean in, they lean out, there are overhangs and many complex features. Assessing our reach is important but we also have to assess how to position our bodies to account for all of these factors. Good body positioning and technique forces the PwP to become more aware of their body, to break out of their box. Climbing well forces us to loosen up our hips, engage our cores, use our legs, and stay tight to the wall. Sounds easy. But for the PwP this can be very challenging, yet extremely helpful (and fun) as you figure out how to move this way. Climbing is relatively gentle on the body. In fact, despite at times taking you to terrifying heights, when performed safely with the proper precautions it is very safe. This, in my opinion is one of the greatest benefits of climbing.
Weight Lifting – PwP tend to underutilize certain muscles particularly in the posterior chain. Targeted strength training can re-train the body to use these muscles while at the same time reversing loss of strength due to underuse. I have found certain exercises extremely effective at correcting my tendency to slouch, improve my flexibility, and promote proper core engagement. The squat and the deadlift are favorites of mine. Being strong in those exercises in particular gives me a boost in morale and confidence that only further enhances their overall health benefits. The negatives of strength training, the squat and deadlift in particular, is there is a relatively high potential for injury especially when not performed with good form. Fortunately, there are plenty of effective alternatives to the Squat and traditional Deadlift such as the goblet squat for the Squat and the hex-bar deadlift for the traditional barbell deadlift.
Cycling/ Mountain Biking – Cycling is special to me because It’s one of my first loves, in terms of recreational activities. I bought a bike with hard-earned lawn-mowing money in my youth and used to frequent the trails in the area I grew up in. When I attended Virginia Tech my love for Mountain Biking grew and today, I still love it. There has been some research suggesting that “fast cadence cycling” may slow down disease progression. I’m not sure what the reason behind it is but I find that after I ride my bike I generally move and walk smoother. One of the things I love about biking is the feeling of freedom that it gives me. I’m often quite limited walking but on a bike I can easily cover many miles relatively quickly. I can even ride a bike when completely off**. Mountain Biking, that is, riding a bike designed for rugged terrain, usually with a front suspension and often with a rear suspension as well, on a mountain bike trail, provides a thrilling exercise promotes rapid reactions, good balance, supreme leg strength, and endurance. Nothing quite gets my heart pumping like blasting down a rocky trail, carefully picking the smoothest lines to keep the bike under control, and “sending it”(catching air) on jumps. The downside for Mountain Biking is there can be a significant risk of injury. Riding less aggressively can significantly lower that risk, however.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) – BJJ is special to me because I “discovered” it shortly after I was diagnosed with Pd. I find that it provides a challenge that is fast paced yet demands a high level of body awareness and control. That is, the high level brain is occupied with the overall objectives of the sport: reading the opponent by sight and feel, defending against attack, planning and mounting your own attack. All at a very fast pace. Winning the match one must either have scored more points when time expires or submit the opponent by compelling them to “tap” through either a choke hold or a joint lock. To win, speed, skill, and control are needed. Submissions in particular can be challenging for a PwP execute as they require a high level of precision and dexterity. BJJ builds strength and flexibility of your entire body but particularly in the hips and core, which are often underutilized by PwP. Perhaps the greatest benefit I see in BJJ is that it provides a fast paced challenge yet is overall easier on ones hip and knee joints when compared to other high intensity RMs. Not that it is without risk, however. I have found BJJ is hard on your lower back. Also, there is potential for serious injury to your joints if an opponent were to attempt a submission on you with excessive aggression. This risk can be mitigated by choosing not to compete in tournaments and sticking with a level-headed sparring partner.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – HIIT training is characterized as a single or a series of exercises that are completed in sets (or intervals). The objective can be to complete as many sets as possible in a specific amount of time: As Many Rounds as Possible (AMRAP). To repeat the sets after a period of time (usually a minute) for either a defined # of sets or until the set cannon be completed within the defined time period: Every Minute on the Minute(EMOM). Or a specific number of sets can be completed in as little time as possible. CrossFit generally fits into this category. The great thing about HIIT training is how it is endlessly tailorable it is. You can focus on legs and do lunges, goblet squats, and step-ups, or you can mix it up and do core, back, chest, legs…whatever. You can go heavy with fewer reps, you can go lighter with more reps, or you can do a mix. The mechanics of most of the exercises are easy to learn, but when done with enough intensity, HIIT exercises can be hard. Also, though you can use equipment you don’t have to. I think the greatest feature of these workouts is that you can get an excellent workout any time, anywhere, in a very short amount of time. A downside of HIIT style training is that they aren’t really fun to do so it can be mentally difficult to make yourself do it.
Others – I participate in other RMs less regularly yet nonetheless reap benefits from these as well. I’ll say a few words on each.
- Hiking – Interestingly, I often have trouble walking down the sidewalk but put me on a rugged trail and I’m good. This may have something to do with the fact that walking on easy terrain is supposed to be handled by your lower level brain, which Pd interferes with. Navigating a rocky trail requires more higher level brain involvement, and I have no trouble with this kind of trail. As far as I’m aware, hiking doesn’t get cited as having particular value for combatting Pd. However, a great hike with family and/or friends can be extremely relaxing and enjoyable. A stress-killing hike almost always makes me feel better and reducing stress definitely is good for Pd.
- Juggling – This one is very new to me but I’ve already been struck by how this activity pushes the practitioner to study and understand their movements in minute detail. As I gradually get the hang of juggling 3 balls I’m fascinated by how various mental and verbal techniques alter my focus. I’m hopeful that the techniques I’m learning for Juggling will be applicable to allowing me to move better in everyday life. This remains to be seen. For now, I’m enjoying this addictive activity.
- Jumping on a trampoline – Jumping on a trampoline is simply a blast. My kids love doing it so it’s a great way for me to spend time with them. On the downside, it’s relatively easy to overdo it and and get injured. Still, I have spent many a lazy weekend afternoon bouncing around with my kids while strengthening my body and better enabling me to deal with Pd.
- Skiing / snowboarding – I don’t get to snowboard very often but when I do get a chance to spend some time on the slopes it’s almost always memorable. Snowboarding /skiing promotes good reflexes and balance which are both affected by Pd. The stress busting activity can help stay fit and ward off Pd symptoms.
*I use the term “Recreational Movement (RM)” because the term “exercise” implies that the activity is performed with the intent to increase strength or cardiovascular health. For PwP this is important, yet there seem to be other factors at play here. “Recreational Movement” encompasses any kind of movement as the result in engagement in sports or athletics such as basketball, climbing, running, karate, etc or active recreational activities such as juggling, fast-walking, ping-pong, dancing, or hiking.
**To be “off” is when Pd medications are not working as well.