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Helen Kremers, 79, and Shirley Brussells, 87, lift weights during their semiweekly exercise class held in collaboration with Northwestern's Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Exercise stretches comprehensive Parkinson's treatment

by Erica Peterson
April 10, 2008


Erica Peterson/Medill

Elizabeth Stegemöller, musical therapist, and Raquel Gonzales, physical therapist, lead an exercise class.


Erica Peterson/Medill

Gonzales helps Robert E. Dawson with stretching exercises.

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Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Special Parkinson's Information Day

Learn more about Parkinson’s disease and programs at the Parkinson’s Information Day to be co-hosted by the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, 345 E. Superior St., 11 a.m.-2 p.m., on Monday. For more information about this event or the sponsors, call 312-503-4397 or 312-238-1000.

Eight participants lift weights and do stretches in an exercise class off of North Lake Shore Drive.

They also move to the rhythm of an autoharp, played by a music therapist who plucks the strings and sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

This isn’t the kind of exercise class that can be found at gyms around the city. Instead, it’s a class specifically designed for people with Parkinson’s disease, made possible by a partnership between Northwestern University’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

The center and the institute are co-hosting an open house Monday for information about programs and Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease affects approximately 1.5 million Americans. Although the condition doesn’t usually manifest itself until after age 65, the National Parkinson Foundation estimates that 15 percent of cases are seen in men and women younger than 50.

Chicago resident Brenda Zwadlo, 59, is part of the statistic but for each individual the disease is strictly personal. She was diagnosed at age 49 and has spent the last 10 years coping with Parkinson’s disease. Originally, she was misdiagnosed with a herniated disc and underwent surgery. But eventually her neurologist recognized the early signs of Parkinson’s.

“I was in a store and I put my hand in my pocket and I could not get it out,” Zwadlo said of her early symptoms. “I knew something was wrong.” She also realized writing was becoming more difficult and her handwriting was deteriorating, a common early sign of the disease.

Parkinson’s is caused by the slow degeneration of dopamine cells in the brain. Dopamine allows for coordinated movement throughout the body’s muscles and when the brain cells begin to die those with Parkinson’s begin to have trouble moving.   

Typical symptoms are tremors, slowness, stiffness and walking problems, according to Dr. Aleksandar Videnovic, a neurologist affiliated with the PDMDC. “Very often [patients] will notice symptoms in retrospect,” he said. “They’ll trip a bit, notice their golf game isn’t as good, be slower.” 

The PDMDC has been recognized as a Center of Excellence by the National Parkinson Foundation, which means that it meets criteria for excellence in research, comprehensive care and outreach. It is the only such center in Illinois, and one of only 27 across the country. People come from Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and all over Illinois to take advantage of the center’s programs and facilities.

Though medication is usually a factor in treatment for Parkinson’s, the PDMDC is known for its comprehensive care. Patients not only meet with neurologists, but can benefit from the physical therapists, social workers and nutritionists on staff. There are also opportunities to participate in support groups and exercise classes.

“In addition to education, patient care and research, we try to broaden our programs to provide the most opportunities for the best quality of life for our patients,” said Diane Breslow, the center coordinator and a clinical social worker.

This includes offering the semiweekly exercise classes. Because the disease stiffens muscles, Videnovic said, exercise is great for Parkinson’s patients and can also aid in balance.  “If there is one thing you can do for your disease, that is exercise and stay healthy,” he said.

“A lot of patients were going to an arthritis exercise class or an older adult exercise class,” Breslow said. “They were looking for something but it wasn’t quite geared to them and their symptoms.”

The answer was the center’s exercise class, which incorporates principles of yoga, tai chi, dance and other techniques to help Parkinson’s patients manage their symptoms and improve their mobility.

“Using an external cue like music is tapping into a different pathway in the brain that’s not touched by the disease,” said Elizabeth Stegemöller, a music therapist who plays for the class twice a month. The tunes she plucks out on her autoharp cajole the brain to allow reluctant muscles to bend and march.

The class has a core of about 10 patients, but others come and go. “If I had to exercise by myself, I wouldn’t do it,” Zwadlo said. “I really feel the difference when I don’t exercise as opposed to when I do.”

The class winds down after an hour and the participants have had a workout. “Why do I come?” asks Robert Dawson, a practicing psychologist. “I can show specific improvement because of the program here. I come because it works.”