Learnings of an Athlete from Parkinson’s Disease…

Saturday, May 14, 2016 by Coach Kristen

What an incredible thing it is to be an athlete…a triathlete at that.  I truly have valued the ability to be able to swim, bike, and run many miles over the last decade.  The comradery is like no other, the community is a blessing to be a part of, the racing is bar none some of the most fun I’ve ever had.  The workouts are hard and time consuming, but worth every ounce of energy given every minute.  The big picture of how being an athlete has impacted my life can be seen by anyone following me on Facebook, Twitter, or personally can be seen being around me any time, any day.  I am grateful, but until I started to care for my father who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in September of 2012, I never really noticed how blessed I am for the little things.

Dexterity and Compression Socks

Unfortunately, my father was diagnosed with something called Multiple Systems Atrophy.  This is a Parkinson’s-like disease.  It has many attributes that come along with it, one being orthostatic hypotension, or the dropping of blood pressure upon standing to the point of passing out.  I am an avid supporter of wearing compression socks for recovery and just general every day comfort.  You can often catch me wearing them to a work-out or on a plane trip.  I like the feel of them and even though research is inconclusive on their significant effect, they work for me.  One of the benefits of compression socks for non-athletes, such as diabetes patients or those with cardiac problems, is the effect they have to increase circulation in the extremities and return blood to the heart.  It helps to keep the blood pressure up when the body’s circulatory system doesn’t quite do the job by itself.  One of the recommendations for my father was to start wearing them on a daily basis.  I educated him on them and he was upbeat about wearing them.  I found several pairs that were neutral colors (surprisingly hard to do) and not too tight.  He wore them at first and then progressively stopped wearing them.  I wondered why.  One morning as I was helping him get ready, the reason dawned on me.  He no longer had enough dexterity in his hands to be able to grab the sock, let alone the arm strength to pull the sock over his foot and then the rest of the way up his leg.  He now has to have someone assist with this when he wants to wear them. Every single time I have put my socks on, I never once thought about how awesome it was to have the ability to be able to do this.  It is something I completely took for granted and now every time I put them on, I am thankful for the capability to move my fingers and pinch and pull hard enough to get them on.  It’s the little things…

Strength Training to Avoid Falling

I often talk to others about how important resistance training is.  Typically, the reasoning has something to do with stability and strength for triathlon. It is also proven that this is one of the biggest benefits we can give our bodies for the long haul.  Especially as women…we need it to maintain our bone density, we need it to sit down, stand up, walk across the room and everything after that.  I have always focused my grateful attention on the ability to do all of these large things in life with the larger leg muscles.  Strength training has afforded me the ability to ski, surf, climb a mountain, box jump, whatever non-everyday activity I have chosen to get myself into.  Until my father wasn’t able to depend solely on his leg strength to stand up, and fell on a semi-regular basis, did I see how important it is to keep up our arm strength.  To be able to stand, he has to use his arms either pushing off arm rests, or a table, or grabbing on to an assistant.  His legs fail him sometimes.  I have never really thought about how important it is to have arm strength to be mobile until I have helped him.  Not only does arm strength afford us the ability to get up and move, but also to catch ourselves in a fall.  I’m not talking about the running along, trip on a crack, yard sale type fall.  I’m talking about the legs freezing, I can’t take a step to catch myself slow fall.  I have seen my dad do it a few times where he is able to catch himself on a counter or his walker and stop his forward motion to save himself from falling…all because of arm strength.  This of course doesn’t always happen and he has fractured a cheek bone and sprained a wrist and I suspect there will be more of this. But how amazing it is when he does have enough upper body strength to prohibit the negative blow. I have realized how important it is to maintain the strength to lift your own body weight until you can get your feet back under you.  I now realize that doing push-ups and plank are much more impactful than just building my muscles for swimming, cycling, and running.  I think of them in ways that could lead to a safer future for myself.  It’s the little things…

Keeping the Brain to Body Connection

And last but not least, just the simple fact that my body does what my brain wants it to do…most of the time.  I take step after step, pedal revolution after revolution, and stroke after stroke and my muscles work how I want them to work.  I go about my day easily opening creamers for my coffee, stepping up into my truck, being able to climb into bed and tuck myself in at night.  My brain tells my body to do each one of those tasks without a second thought…until now.  I am grateful that staying athletic allows those connections in my brain to keep firing away.  Exercise has been proven by science to extend these abilities late into life. I actually think about the electrical signal that passes from my brain to my muscles when I do something as simple as text on my phone.  It is more than just training for a triathlon now. I don’t take these things lightly.  It’s the little things…

I am amazed at my father’s tenacity to do his physical and occupational therapy to stave off the effects of this disease as long as possible, but it still gets him.  I see the difference having exercise everyday makes not only in his ability to move, but in the ability to think then move.  I keep silly putty in my car to maintain my manual dexterity, I strength train minimally twice a week (focusing on upper body and core), I do cardiorespiratory exercise minimally three times a week no longer just to be a triathlete, but more because I know that I can make a difference in the future of my health, disease or not.

I want you to understand that being an athlete, fast or slow, novice or elite, can be so impactful on your life in so many ways.  Don’t take for granted the opportunities it affords you, even if it is just something as simple as putting on your socks.  Keep on moving and you might just out swim, out bike, or out run some of these dreaded diseases that we might be destined for.

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