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The art of control

Tigard fitness specialist says exercise may help keep Parksinon's disease at bay


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard resident Nancy Nelson is a fitness specialist and personal trainer who uses exercise to help people with Parkinsons disease. Studies show that exercise may help stave off some of Parkinsons symptoms by forming new pathways in the brain.

Nancy Nelson will be the first to tell you there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease.

But she’ll be the last to give up the fight to find one.

The Tigard personal trainer has spent the past 16 years devoting herself to extending the lives of people with Parkinson’s — a degenerative neurological disease said to affect about 1 million people across the country.

Nelson’s approach to helping people with Parkinson’s is through the simplest form of therapy: Good old-fashioned exercise.

Recent research indicates that exercise is crucial to staving off the effects of Parkinson’s disease, said Nelson, 58.

Physical activity may delay the disease’s progression, at least for awhile.

“A lot of the symptoms of Parkinson’s can be addressed with exercise,” Nelson said.

Nelson founded her own business, PDEX, or Parkinson’s Disease Exercise, a few years ago to provide exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s all across the Portland area.

“I love it,” Nelson said. “My husband said I always wanted to save the world,” she said. “Now I’ve found a way to help people indirectly.”

Her goal is to attack the problems people with Parkinson’s disease encounter every day, such as fine motor skills, balance and other issues.

“You need to work on building a skill,” Nelson said. “You work on stepping, or lunging. Intensity matters. You need to get people outside of their comfort zone.”

Classes slow progression

Nelson’s classes are ongoing, with clients returning year after year.

“I have some people in that class who started with me eight years ago,” she said. “There is a point where you see improvement and you see things get better.”

Joe Squyres, 67, of Durham has been taking Nelson’s class for five years and said the work she has done has been nothing short of miraculous.

Squyres was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about eight years ago. He said exercise has helped slow the effects of the disease.

“That’s highly attributable to Nancy’s classes,” he said.

Squyres takes classes with Nelson twice a week at the Providence Mercantile Fitness Center in Lake Oswego, where most of her work is done.

“I look at it as a disease that you die with, but not die of,” he said. “You keep as much function as you can over a period of time.”

Nelson incorporates t’ai chi, pilates and other exercise regimens into her classes.

“We are taking those exercise principles and gearing it toward their symptoms,” Nelson said. “Parkinson’s patients take smaller steps, so we focus on whole-body activation and exaggerate movements,” Nelson said. “If they exaggerate what they are doing, it looks similar to what I might be doing (with full mobility).”

Exercise helps form new pathways in the brain, Squyres said, which helps to keep Parkinson’s from getting worse.

"You are doing things that you are used to doing, but couldn’t consistently do well for a period of time,” Squyres said. “It is slowly degrading. It’s like brain games. Exercise helps it continue to function.”

But there is no cure, Squyres said, and while exercise helps, it’s far from a permanent solution.

“Nobody with Parkinson’s is getting better,” he said. “But whether it’s exercise or medication, we try to deal with the symptoms.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nancy Nelson helps clients balance on one foot during an exercise class in Lake Oswego on Friday. The classes are helping people with Parkinsons stave off some of the effects through exercise and movement.

'I don't take vacations'

Most people know about Parkinson’s disease, Nelson said, but the disease is still not widely understood by most people.

“People often think of people who have tremors, but it’s a lot more than tremors,” Nelson said. “Some people don’t get the tremors right away, but your cognition is affected.”

Scientists don’t know a lot about the disease, either.

“We can’t pinpoint who gets it, and we can’t tell you if medication will affect you like others, or how long it will be effective, or if you will go from gait to cognitive symptoms to tremors,” she said.

Squyres said a frequent thing heard by Parkinson’s patients is the phrase “I don’t know.”

“Am I going to get better? I don’t know. If I ask will this medication work, the answer is, ‘Well, we don’t know.’ Everybody seems to have a different response to medication and how long it stays favorable,” he said.

But what Squyres does know is that his exercises seem to be helping.

“Nancy’s classes have contributed significantly to the slow progression of my disease,” Squyres said.

And the classes are popular. What started as a class of four has grown to more than 60 participants exercising several times each week, with Nelson teaching additional classes in Portland and providing one-on-one sessions with clients who can’t attend regular group sessions.

“I don’t take vacations,” Nelson said. “Somebody told me once, ‘Nancy, Parkinson’s doesn’t take a vacation.’”

Squyres said Nelson’s energetic nature is contagious.

“Her nickname around here is the Energizer Bunny,” Squyres said. “She puts a huge amount of effort into it, both in and out of the classroom.”