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Sharing Stories: How Exercise Keeps Me Going

By Brenda Harris

Exercise and helping others to exercise are my passions and have been integral to both my personal and professional life for over 30 years.  I have worked in the fitness industry as both a personal trainer and as an instructor — of aerobics, weight lifting, tennis and Pilates — to college-age students and senior citizens.

In 2000, four years before I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD), I noticed that my physical abilities had started to change.  I was training for the Hawaii Marathon and found I constantly fought muscle spasms in my left foot.  During the actual race, I had to stop running many times.  Still, I was determined to finish the race and I did, six hours later. 

Unfortunately, several years into my diagnosis, my running days have now ended.  This is a difficult change for anyone to accept, and perhaps even more so when you are accustomed to being active.  At first, I accepted it badly.  I found myself giving up, more often sitting around doing nothing and feeling sorry for myself.

When I realized I was doing this, I looked inward and asked myself, “Why am I giving up?”  The answer was simple: giving up was the easiest course of action.  But I also realized that I would live to regret it.  Thinking about the path ahead of me, I was intimidated.  I knew the saying, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.”  But I also knew that one of the hardest things to do — whether or not you have PD — is to start an exercise program from scratch.  I had to tell myself more than once to stop the pity party, believe in myself and just start somewhere.

So I did, and despite the challenges I face every day, I have found that exercise has helped me both physically and mentally.  For example, working out daily has kept my motor reflexes in pretty good shape.  Stretching counteracts the muscle rigidity caused by Parkinson’s and helps me to maintain my range of motion.  Strength training helps to keep my muscles strong, to prevent joint pain and to improve my posture.  Conditioning activities — walking, swimming, water exercise, biking, or using fitness equipment (such as an elliptical machine) — benefit not only my muscle strength but also my lung capacity.

The benefits of staying active are not just physical.  Exercise helps to elevate mood and combat depression.  When I miss a workout, I really notice a difference in my overall peace of mind.  My students and clients provide an additional mental boost for me; I certainly can’t skip a session with one of them and that commitment alone becomes motivating.  More importantly, some of my students have stories to tell and a level of determination that truly inspires me.

People often ask me how I can keep up such a positive disposition and stay so active with Parkinson’s.  It is not always easy.  But while the challenges that PD presents are certainly not what I planned on facing, they are now my reality.  I believe my only choice is to make the best of it and to look forward. 

Brenda Harris is a fitness coordinator at the Cass County Council on Aging and a fitness instructor at the Southwestern Michigan College.  She is a board member of the Michigan Parkinson Foundation and the founder of a local support group.

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As with every aspect of your care, always consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.