Tai chi is becoming a new favorite exercise among Parkinson’s patients like Larry Bergeson of Newnan.
“I've had two trial lessons,” he said. “Tai chi is great for learning movement and balance. As a person affected by Parkinson's disease, both movement and balance become more difficult as the disease progresses.”
Bergeson also heads up the local Parkinson’s support group. He invited Trish Gurney, a therapist with the First Hands organization of Peachtree City and tai chi teacher, to lead an exercise class during one of the support group’s meetings.
“The great thing about tai chi is it can be done standing, holding onto a chair or sitting,” Gurney explained. “A lot of people with Parkinson’s disease lose control of balance in their lower extremities. Tai chi teaches them to move from their center of gravity which is three fingers below the belly button. It brings their focus down, helps them align their bodies in a straight line and gives them good posture.
According to Gurney, Parkinson’s patients who take tai chi classes for at least a year have less tendency to fall.
Falling to the ground can be just one outcome for patients with Parkinson’s disease.
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation website, the disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that predominantly affects dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain.
Around 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year, according to www.parkinsonassociation.org .
It is estimated between 7-10 million people worldwide are currently living with the disease. Unfortunately, researchers do not know what causes Parkinson’s disease, and there is no cure.
Symptoms generally develop slowly over years. The disease affects everyone differently, but indicators include tremors, slowness of movements, rigid limbs and balance issues, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Parkinson’s disease affects a person’s cognition, or mental abilities used to process information and apply knowledge, according to www.apdaparkinson.org. This includes functions that allow people to estimate distance and depth perception, which is why Parkinson’s patients may have trouble walking, turning around, reaching for objects and even walking backwards.
The lack of coordination, vertigo, loss of muscle tone, and issues with depth perception are another set of potential problems for patients living with Parkinson’s disease, said Dr. Amy Morse, a physical therapist with Neuro Rehab Clinic at the Emory Brain Health Center.
According to Gurney, tai chi can help with those health issues as well.
“Tai chi teaches Parkinson’s patients to keep their joints loose,” she explained. “There are exercises we can do that create a long ‘form,’ or segue into more choreographed movements, which is great for the patients’ mental state as they memorize the movements.
“I teach them ways to refine the movements and still keep the integrity of it,” Gurney added.
Gurney has taught tai chi classes for people with all ranges of abilities for 21 years, she said.
Gurney is also a master of Emei Qigong, she said.
Similar to tai chi, Emei Qigong is a Chinese martial arts aimed at promoting good health, emotional balance and spiritual awareness through practices that strengthen the body's vital energy. The meditative exercise also reportedly deepens people’s healing ability, according to the emeiqigong.us website.
“People with Parkinson’s disease have to envision a move before they do it, such as getting up from a chair,” she explained. “It can be done if their foot is positioned in the right place and they are sitting up correctly.
“Tai chi also teaches patients to keep their knees bent, which strengthens their quad muscles,” Gurney added. “Having strong quad muscles is what gets you out of a chair or off of a toilet.”
But most importantly, patients need to have an open mind, Gurney said.
Tai chi and other martial arts are a form of eastern holistic medicine that Gurney believes has not been fully embraced by the “western civilization” as a means of healing.
But Gurney said so far, she’s had a good response among people she’s taught.
“Tai chi is still a foreign idea, but more people are becoming enthusiastic about the class,” she said. “I have seen Parkinson’s patients more eager to move. That alone is good. If they don’t move, their muscles and joints will seize up.
“I believe tai chi is utilizing everything they’ve got,” Gurney added. “It’s keeping them alert, focused and happy. It’s keeping them flexible to learning and to always keep moving. But the exercise is also very meditative for them too.”
Gurney’s tai chi classes have made a believer out of Bergeson.
“It's a well-known fact the way to slow Parkinson's disease is to keep moving, which includes exercises,” he said. “Tai chi helps to meet that need, and Trish is an excellent teacher. She is patient and caring. She was so well-received, we invited her to come back.”