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Athletes of All Ages Aren’t Letting Parkinson’s Stop Them

If your hobbies include sports and athleticism, it may feel as though there are few fates worse than Parkinson’s. But even though there’s currently no cure, that doesn’t mean there is no hope. With the right attitude and the right treatment, it’s possible to enjoy a fulfilling life for decades after being diagnosed — even for athletes.

Outlook for Parkinson’s Disease

As the onset of symptoms begins, those with Parkinson’s gradually develop stiffness, tremors, and decreased coordination. In time, even simple tasks like brushing your teeth can become a serious challenge. Thankfully, the development of Parkinson’s is relatively slow. That means with treatment, it’s possible to lead a normal life, even if your idea of a normal life means running a marathon.

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Professional Athletes Living — and Thriving — with Parkinson’s

Recently, former professional baseball star Kirk Gibson joined the long list of professional athletes who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Athletes like Gibson are at an increased risk for Parkinson’s because traumatic brain injuries can increase your risk of developing a variety of degenerative brain diseases. That may be why many of the world’s best athletes like Kirk Gibson, John Walker, and Muhammad Ali all have Parkinson’s. And for athletes like Gibson, it doesn’t slow them down one bit.

Having played hundreds of games for the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Detroit Tigers, Gibson is no stranger to meeting challenges. He faced his diagnosis with a pledge to fight Parkinson’s “with the same determination and unwavering intensity that I have displayed in all of my endeavors in life.” That’s exactly the kind of won’t-stop attitude that keeps athletes like Gibson in the game.

Literally Fighting Parkinson’s

Training to be a boxer might not sound like conventional therapy, but athleticism can help people with Parkinson’s battle their symptoms in more than once sense of the word. An Indianapolis-based gym, Rock Steady Boxing, helps people with Parkinson’s do just that.

Rather than train people to fight, Rock Steady Boxing’s non-contact fitness training helps patients alleviate stiffness with stretching, improve their balance skills by learning footwork, and steady their tremors by throwing jabs.

Above all, participants learn that their training builds them up mentally, which can drastically improve their attitudes and outlook on their disease. With fitness programs for every stage of Parkinson’s, Rock Steady Boxing isn’t just a place to get better, but also to form friendships with others who understand the difficulty of living with the disease. Today, over 50 gyms around the world donate time each week to the Rock Steady Boxing program.

Running Down Parkinson’s

Last year, 58-year-old Michael Westphal finished the Great Run Marathon in just over three hours – a time that’s good enough to qualify him for the world-famous Boston Marathon. And as someone with Parkinson’s, Michael’s test was far more difficult than beating runner’s fatigue.

As Parkinson’s develops, the brain produces less and less dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s critical for relaying messages from the brain to our nerves. In a marathon setting, the exhausted body is already starved for dopamine, which can make it difficult for your muscles and brain to communicate.

With the help of levodopa, one of a number of available Parkinson’s treatments, Westphal was able to reinvigorate himself at the 20 mile mark and cross the finish line with an objectively excellent time. His completion was nothing short of a triumphant victory, both for himself and for people with Parkinson’s everywhere, as his efforts raised more than $32,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation — a leader in Parkinson’s research.

Athletes like Michael Westphal and Kirk Gibson serve as an inspiring example that you can still lead a rich life with Parkinson’s. For people who are willing to fight, literally or otherwise, athletes like these prove that there’s no reason to let Parkinson’s stop you from following your dreams.

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