Fantasy Walk and real exercise can help people with Parkinson's

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There's no taking for granted the ability to walk among people with Parkinson's disease. It is for them and the dream of fighting the disease that the Fantasy Walk is planned for Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

This is the 11th year for the walk, the major fund-raising event of the Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania. It was started by Irving Popkin, who battled Parkinson's for 21 years before his death in February at the age of 76. The walk has been renamed in his honor, and Mr. Popkin's daughter, Debbie Rudoy, has been named event chairman.

The Fantasy Walk offers activities beyond actual walking, which is difficult for many people with Parkinson's. Carey Knapp, director of development for the local foundation, said there'll be a cookout, a talk by zoo curator Henry Kacprzyk, a raffle, an awards ceremony and an update on Parkinson's research. Registration is at 1 p.m.

There is no known cure for Parkinson's, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that affects a person's motor skills and speech. About 50,000 mostly older Americans -- the actor Michael J. Fox is one of the few to exhibit symptoms before age 50 -- are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year. Men are more likely than women to get the disease.

Irv Popkin started the Fantasy Walk because he -- an avid runner before he got the disease -- believed that regular exercise helps people with Parkinson's cope with the ailment.

"Many years ago when I moved back to Pittsburgh, Dad suggested that we take a walk together on Sunday mornings as a way to exercise and talk," Ms. Rudoy recalled. "We walked together weekly for 23 years." They'd walk for an hour, and her father also did water aerobics twice a week, Ms. Rudoy said. The weekly walks continued up to six months before his death.

"We've known for years that patients who exercise do better," said Dr. Susan Baser, medical director, Movement Disorder Center at Allegheny General Hospital. "Exercise is neuroprotective."

There is no conclusive evidence that exercise will retard the progression of Parkinson's in humans, said Dr. Amanda Smith of the Department of Neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, "but from animal studies it appears that [exercise] does affect the progression of the disease."

"Many symptoms of Parkinson's disease result from the lack of a chemical messenger, called dopamine, in the brain," the Mayo Clinic Web site says. "This occurs when the specific brain cells that produce dopamine die or become impaired."

Among the symptoms of Parkinson's are tremors, slowed motion, rigid muscles and impaired posture and balance.

"The loss of dopamine causes a loss of flex posture," Dr. Baser said. "Instead of kicking out all the dopamine you need, you're getting maybe 60 percent."

Parkinson's sufferers tend to walk leaning forward, with their feet closer together.

"The longer you walk, the more you tilt forward," Dr. Baser said. "The foot just isn't designed to be walked on the way Parkinson's patients walk on it."

Exercising improves the effectiveness of dopamine, Dr. Baser said.

"We don't know for sure if the brain makes more, or if the metabolism is changed," she said. "It just seems to work better."

"Thirty to 60 minutes a day has been shown to be beneficial," Dr. Smith said. But, she cautioned, "exercise will have to be continuous to maintain the benefits."

Range-of-motion exercises are recommended, Dr. Baser said. "You want to do the motion opposite to the position you are in. Repetition is more important than weight."


Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.


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