Pilates Plus

Parkinson's: Can Pilates help?

By Caron Bosler | The Telegraph | 26th May 2008 | Original article

When Lady Spooner was diagnosed with the disease, her first reaction was one of despair. But, writes Caron Bosler, exercises to improve her mobility helped counteract its effects

When I first met Lady Spooner eight years ago, she was everything I imagined an English lady to be - a bridge player, who loved to read, walk her two pekinese dogs, and spend time with her family.

Take action: exercise can work both the body and mind
She is also a keen artist - her works from the past 50 years hang on the walls, close to the display of freshly cut flowers from the garden of her Holland Park home.

Hers was an idyllic life until five years ago, when Alyson Spooner, now in her early seventies, discovered she had Parkinson's disease. When she was diagnosed, she painted a picture of herself bound to a chair and glued to the ground, titled Despair. She is one of 120,000 people in the UK afflicted by this debilitating illness.

While receiving the right medication is critical, many sufferers now appreciate the benefits of alternative therapies, such as Pilates, in conjunction with Western medicine.

Parkinson's disease inhibits the ability to control movement. This results in a "shuffling" movement as well as loss of balance, fatigue, impaired co-ordination and decreased dexterity.

The disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the part of the brain called the substantia nigra. These cells are responsible for producing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which allows messages to be sent to the parts of the brain that control movement. With the depletion of dopamine, co?ordination is increasingly difficult.

But because Pilates improves co?ordination and control while stretching and elongating the muscles, it can help relieve the symptoms of many sufferers, including Alyson, who now combines her doctor's medication with daily Pilates exercises. While there has been little scientific research into whether Pilates can help Parkinson's sufferers, the Parkinson's Disease Society website lists it as a complementary therapy to be used alongside conventional medicine, adding "suitable exercise?… is especially important for people with Parkinson's as their muscles and joints tend to get stiff and rigid".

So how does it work in practical terms? As Alyson's Pilates instructor I focus on exercises that will directly counter the effects of the disease (see left). To improve co-ordination, I give her exercises that work both the body and mind - similar to exercises such as patting the head and rubbing the stomach simultaneously. By focusing Alyson's mind on moving the arms in a different pattern to the legs at the same time, I help improve her motor control.

Balance is another key issue for those with Parkinson's. I get Alyson to practise walking in a straight line, to balance on one leg, lift up on to her toes, and perform some light dance steps. I also make her walk with her head held high, lifting knees up and rolling through the feet to combat the shuffling often associated with Parkinson's disease.

In fact, problems with posture arise for many people as they age, not just people with Parkinson's. Alyson is especially vulnerable because her love of painting means she stands for long periods of time. So to strengthen her postural muscles, I get her to perform exercises that open up the chest and shoulders, increase rotation in the spine and loosen the tightness in her neck. For example, I tell her to imagine a string coming directly out of the crown of her head and reaching straight up to the sky.

Lack of dexterity can also be a problem for Parkinson's sufferers: everyday tasks such as writing, buttoning a shirt or holding a cup can become frustrating. With Alyson, I practise stretching the hands and fingers, as well as light co-ordination exercises - I might ask her to touch each finger quickly to the thumb, sequentially, in one direction and then the other.

Fatigue and depression are other common side-effects. Because Pilates is a gentle form of strengthening the body, sessions can easily be adapted to deal with tiredness, depending on how much energy Alyson has on a particular day.

Doctors also believe many people with Parkinson's experience symptoms of depression. This can occur either because of the chemical changes in the brain that cause the condition or as a reaction to the physical limitations the disease places on peoples' lives. As the Parkinson's Society points out, exercise is a way to relieve the symptoms of depression while exercise classes can be an opportunity to meet new friends.

To keep Parkinson's at bay, Alyson practises Pilates twice a week in my studios, privately, and 20 minutes on her own every other day. "The most important quality in a Pilates teacher is that they are uplifting and fun," she says. "It's the laughter I really enjoy."

Five years on from her diagnosis - with a book about her life and paintings coming out later this year - she shows few signs of slowing down.

Please consult your doctor before starting any new exercise programme.