DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now to learn more about Parkinson's disease. Every year, some 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with it. They face a gradual loss of control over their muscles causing tremors, loss of balance and difficulty walking or speaking. Depression is also a problem. Well, now there's growing enthusiasm for something called movement therapy which can alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. As Richard Knox reports, this therapy can take some surprising forms.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: Mike Quaglia was 42 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. For seven years, his condition deteriorated despite medication.
MIKE QUAGLIA: I was at a point where I was either going to give up and let the Parkinson's takeover or I was going to decide to fight back.
KNOX: And he did, literally. Last February, he stumbled onto a program called Rock Steady Boxing. That's right; it teaches Parkinson's patients how to box.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's go, let's go. Bring it in.
KNOX: So now you can find Mike Quaglia in a gym in Pawtucket, R.I., several times a week, his hands encased in bright red boxing gloves.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Step in and hit. Step in.
KNOX: Quaglia's working out with a dozen other Parkinson's patients. They don't punch each other; they're hitting 100-pound punching bags. The patients range from a 46-year-old mother of teenagers - she sports pink boxing gloves - to an 84-year-old former phys ed teacher who uses a wheelchair.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two. One, two. Up high.
KNOX: On days Quaglia boxes, he doesn't need as much medicine.
QUAGLIA: There are some days I don't need medication for six hours after this workout.
KNOX: Normally, what would you need?
QUAGLIA: Two and a half to three hours. It doesn't cure, but it helps.
KNOX: One patient, Patrick Clays, talks about his first impression of Quaglia last March.
PATRICK CLAYS: He was all hunched over like the hunchback of Notre Dame. And I saw him a month later, and I couldn't believe it was the same guy. His confidence was totally different 'cause he felt so good about himself.
KNOX: You hear this a lot from Parkinson's patients - about all kinds of movement therapy - boxing, dancing to a Latin beat, drumming, golfing.
DAN TARSY: I'm a believer.
KNOX: That's Dr. Dan Tarsy, director of the Parkinson's disease program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He sees the change in a lot of patients who go into these exercise programs.
TARSY: They looked a lot different walking out an hour later than they did walking in. They literally had a bounce to their step. It sounds a little hokey, but it actually seems to be the case.
KNOX: Tarsy says patients often report their movements become more fluid. That's the opposite of the rigid, jerky movements typical of Parkinson's. In fact, a 2012 study from the University of Oregon [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly identify the organization leading the 2012 study on exercise as the University of Oregon. It is the Oregon Research Institute.] said found Parkinson's patients who did six months of tai chi and weightlifting had better balance and were less likely to fall. And other recent studies show that Parkinson's symptoms improved with cycling and treadmill workouts.
TARSY: People are surprised by how well they can do - realize they're not really paralyzed; they're just constricted or constrained. They're wearing the straitjacket that's called Parkinson's disease.
KNOX: Exercise can liberate them from that straitjacket, Tarsy says.
TARSY: They say I can do this. And in many of those people, it carries over into everyday life.
KNOX: Scientists are trying to figure out just how exercise can counter the effects of Parkinson's and possibly even prevent it. One clue is that animals with an experimental form of the disease have higher levels of dopamine - the brain chemical that's deficient in Parkinson's - if they're made to exercise. Peter Wayne at Harvard Medical School is looking at how the brains of Parkinson's patients change in response to six months of exercise. He's using a type of exercise very different from boxing - the ancient Chinese art of tai chi.
PETER WAYNE: Because the movements of tai chi are geared to be upright, to be moving, they translate a little better into going down stairs and walking in aisles at the supermarket and being able to lift and put things down carefully.
KNOX: Wayne thinks patients use undamaged parts of their brains to compensate for the areas that normally control automatic movements such as walking. That's because tai chi engages both mind and body. And it may be that any kind of purposeful exercise is a tonic for the brain, particularly those that involve music like drumming or dancing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A few seconds to get a break.
KNOX: Back at the gym, that's how Mike Quaglia sees it.
QUAGLIA: It's all about pushing yourself past your limits and reaching that point where you don't think you can reach. And you get that runner's high. Your neurons start clicking. You get new cells working. Everything works more effectively.
KNOX: And then there's the social aspect of it. Rich Gingras, the owner of the Rhode Island gym, says Parkinson's patients often sit at home and get depressed.
RICH GINGRAS: They're not moving at all. It's a movement disorder, so them coming in here and just moving around and being happy - everybody's smiling - it's great.
KNOX: And after all, there's nothing more therapeutic than a smile. For NPR News, I'm Richard Knox.
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