LEHI — For many, a Parkinson’s diagnosis can significantly change someone’s abilities and lifestyle.
But as one Utah neurologist says, recent research suggests early intervention through exercise can make a lifelong difference.
Jennifer Christ, 55, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly two years ago.
“My left toes curled all the time, even in a shoe. I had the tremor, I was starting to choke when I was eating. I was getting a blank face. My gait was different, I noticed, and I lost my left arm swing,” she described.
She first started noticing symptoms when she was only 49 years old. She was initially misdiagnosed with a stress-induced tremor, but her symptoms continued to get worse.
“They were interfering in my daily life,” Christ said. “It was making me very self-conscious, because other people were noticing they were things I couldn’t hide anymore.”
Parkinson’s disease began to impact her physical, emotional, and social well-being.
“When you can’t hide it anymore, it’s frustrating,” she said. “It takes your self-confidence away is the biggest thing.”
Christ decided early on she would fight back.
Jennifer Christ shows off her boxing gloves which read “Fight Back” on the outside and “Against Parkinson’s” on the inside of the glove. (Photo: KSL TV)
“I made the determination that I was going to fight and I was going to make the best of a situation that was dealt to me, not one I chose but one that I got,” she said.
That’s when she started boxing. She works out three to four times a week with Rock Steady Boxing, a noncontact program designed specifically for Parkinson’s patients.
“I love that it challenges me and lets me know that I can do things that sometimes my head tells me I can’t do,” Christ explained.
While the research is still underway, Intermountain Healthcare’s Dr. Kathleen McKee, clinical movement disorder neurologist and associate medical director for neurosciences patient experience and research, says recent studies suggest exercise can be life-changing.
“There’s a chance that (exercise) actually slows down the course of the disease and this is something we can’t say for any drug that we have out there,” McKee said. “Exercise is the most important thing you can do to possibly slow the disease progression.”
While McKee says any form of exercise is generally beneficial, she says high-intensity exercise is most effective for Parkinson’s patients.
“It’s only that high-intensity, high rate exercise that shows improvement in the Parkinson’s motor symptoms.”
“If you have Parkinson’s and you are really motivated to try to slow this disease down, extend years or quality of life, then what I would recommend is a program of high-intensity exercise that causes you to work out at a high heart rate and to move your body at a high rate,” she explained. “It’s time to up your game to exercise maybe like you’ve never exercised before in your life.”
Although researchers don’t quite understand why, she says there is something about an intense, high rate workout that helps people feel and move better.
“This is definitely more intense than sort of walking and talking with your friends. It’s sweating, breathing hard, really, really pushing yourself,” McKee described.
The research McKee referenced followed people on cycling and treadmill protocols who exercised as high as 80 to 85% of their heart rate maximum for 40 minutes, three to four times a week. While boxing hasn’t been studied in the same way, McKee believes it can also be beneficial.
“You can theorize that boxing is getting people to move at a higher rate than their body would normally move. You’re kind of jazzed up, you have your adrenaline running and you got to hit that punching bag really fast,” she said.
Christ agrees. She says even her athlete children admitted her boxing routine was intense after joining her for a class. “Your heart rate’s up after the warm-up!” Christ said. “We do burpees, we run, we do pushups, we box a lot. I’m sweating. I’m dripping when we’re done.”
McKee says her patients are seeing direct benefits to high-intensity exercise.
“What we’re seeing improvement on from these exercises is rigidity or stiffness, we will sometimes see improvement in tremor and we will see improvement in slowness, so people will just be walking a lot more quickly,” McKee explained. “The benefits you get from the exercise are very similar to the benefits you get from taking a pill of the dopamine replacement that we give for Parkinson’s.”
In general, McKee says her patients who are committed to high-intensity exercise are on lower amounts of medication, are doing the things they enjoy, and living a higher quality of life. She says she prescribes drugs and prescribes exercise and recognizes the value of both in helping her patients.
McKee hopes that medication will help her patients feel better and also allow them to exercise.
“It is going to help you move better so that you can take advantage of the high-intensity, high rate exercise now and maybe actually slow down your disease because that drug is not going to slow the disease.”
For Christ, the hard work has paid off.
“Huge difference in my life! If you don’t know I have Parkinson’s now, you cannot tell I have Parkinson’s,” she said. “My confidence is back, my toes don’t curl, I don’t choke as often, I have facial expression. My walk is very good. I have a swing back in my arm.”
Christ is not only just boxing for herself, but she is also coaching other patients with Parkinson’s disease too.
“I love the people that come in and are newly diagnosed, to be able to tell them it’s not a death sentence that life isn’t over — it’s still really good, and we’re just going to modify things, and you’re going to be able to enjoy life,” she said.
“You can be symptomatic when you come in and start boxing and when you leave, those symptoms are calmed,” she said. “It’s an hour several times a week where you feel normal. It’s the best choice I’ve made since having Parkinson’s.”
Best of all, Christ says she feels like herself again.
“Between the medications and this program, and a fantastic neurologist, my life is back! My life has been given back to me again,” she said. “It makes me Jennifer again.”
Rock Steady Boxing offers virtual Zoom classes for those who are not yet comfortable exercising in person at the locaiton. For those interested in joining, McKee urges Parkinson’s patients to take special precautions to avoid COVID-19.