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Pilates and Parkinson's Disease

Westwood Pilates

By Ali Bragard

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I started learning about Parkinson’s Disease mostly out of necessity.. at 75 years old, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At the time, he had been in great shape, going for weekly 30 mile bike rides, practicing Pilates weekly, and walking tons and traveling the world. In the six years since then, I have learned an immense amount about the disease, from working with him, attending trainings and seminars, becoming part of a test study, as well as now working with other clients who also suffer from Parkinson’s. Despite spending 7+ hours of each week working with Parkinsons’ clients, I feel that I am in no way an expert. In part, because Parkinson’s is such a broad diagnosis, and the way it presents in different bodies can be incredibly varied. My own father struggles with gait and yet has no tremors, other clients have restless leg and tremors and yet no issues with walking, and yet others suffer from immense tightness, worsening posture and problems with appetite, sleep or blood pressure. 

Still, despite the differences among my clients, the disease also has some similarities, and all of my clients have benefited immensely from both Pilates and exercise. (Henceforth Parkinson’s Disease will be referred to as PD, and henceforth, I will remain the Pilates teacher that I am, and not a neurologist, so please forgive the un-scientific explanations). 

One of Joseph Pilates’ famous quotes is that “Change happens through movement and movement heals.” This is essential when working with people with PD. Movement is truly what heals and can prolong not just life but the quality of life of someone with PD. This disease attacks the body, slowing it down in a subtle way. (Studies show that in the first year after diagnosis, the person continues to exercise as much as in the past, but speed decreases by half. Bradykinesia – or slowness of movement – is somewhat universal for people with PD.) Hence, it is easy to not realize the effect the disease is having on your body, unless you are timing yourself as you take a walk or go to the market…and then suddenly when you do start to notice, your steady decline has already begun to take its toll. 

This also happens with how the PD body starts to become more rigid and posture starts to stoop. The shoulders hunch and then PD brain messes with the neurology of a person, so they think they should take small narrow steps. This somehow feels “safer” to the person, while these small narrow steps are actually what often lead to imbalance and a lot of falling. 

So back to Pilates and “Movement heals.” Getting movement into the body, and helping people with control of their muscles, flow, centering, breath, concentration and precision…all of these principles help to counteract the rigidity and the stooped posture, to force the body to move faster than the brain is telling it to move, and to lengthen and strengthen muscles to help support large steps and strong movements. 

There is no one machine or one exercise…In working with PD, I use the same principle as I do with all my clients, in that I work with the body in front of me instead of trying to get every “body” to be the same. The spine corrector can be incredible for helping with posture. Leg and arm springs can help with muscle tone and control, as well as helping the body stay strong and even.  (PD often attacks one side of the body more). For some clients, moving on and off different pieces of equipment can be difficult and much of the session will be spent on the Cadillac. Some of my clients leave their shoes on, just because it makes the session easier and more approachable for them. 

I have spent some time training at the PWR! (Parkinson Wellness Recovery) Gym in Tucson, Arizona, which specializes in developing PD specific exercise programs. Their program looks at moves that can help people not simply to stay strong but to truly help with functionality. How is the disease affecting you, and what exercises can we do to make sure you are able to keep moving? How can we counteract the disease’s effect on your life?

A client complains that he is having a hard time getting in and out of cars…the practitioner looks at what the cause may be (perhaps rigidity, keeping him from hinging at the waist. Perhaps the slowness of movement, which keeps people from using natural momentum to make more fluid movements. Perhaps the inability to weight shift, so that the person is freezing and unable to move anywhere at all). The movements that are chosen for people to do are FUNCTIONAL…what will help the quality of this person’s life? The PWR practitioner then uses a combination of exercises that help with opening up the chest, rocking and weight transferring, twisting the spine, and taking big steps to force PD clients to get out of the habit of tiny movements. 

These concepts can be incorporated into a Pilates session. Shoulder Bridge and the arm circles on the spine corrector are great for opening the chest. Standing arm springs involves quite a bit of weight transfer. Twists are employed in every piece of apparatus in Pilates. And finally, large steps or large movements are what we move towards as we help clients feel more control and then explore a larger range of motion, whether it be leg springs/circles on the Reformer or side leg kicks on the mat or chest expansion on the Cadillac, or pumping on the Wunda chair. 

Unfortunately, even after all the studies that have been done and the years working to solve it, there is still no cure for Parkinson’s Disease. Yet by using the principles of Pilates, the wealth of exercises available to us, and making sure we look to help the functionality of the person in front of us, we can truly make a difference on how that person lives with Parkinson’s Disease. 

About Ali:

Allison (Ali) Bragard has studied yoga, massage and Pilates since she was a teenager and she is passionate about how we can truly transform our bodies and our lives through these disciplines. In 2001 she took her first Pilates class and was instantly convinced that “this is what the body is meant to do to stay strong, lean and healthy.” Since then she studied classical Pilates intensely and completed, in 2004, her Comprehensive Pilates Training through Power Pilates in Los Angeles.

She has been teaching since then in studios in California, Australia and France, teaching people of all shapes and sizes, ages and backgrounds. From teenagers to 91 year olds, she has seen how Pilates can truly make a difference. She is thrilled to be at Westwood Pilates, where she approaches her classes with a love for Pilates, a sense of humor, and a desire to help each person find their center, enabling them to live a healthier and happier life.