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Addressing Parkinson’s With Exercise

Published: October 3, 2016

Claire McLean assisting individuals with Parkinson’s
Claire McLean (c) joined the university as a lecturer in the summer of 2016 with the goal of developing an exercise program at CSULB to assist individuals with Parkinson’s fight back and improve their health.

Individuals with the movement disorder Parkinson’s disease, that affects nearly 1 million in the U.S., get a boost in treatment from a new face in CSULB’s LifeFit Center.

Claire McLean joined the university as a lecturer in the summer of 2016 with the goal of developing an exercise program at CSULB to assist people with Parkinson’s fight back and improve their health. The physical therapist with a 2007 doctorate from USC knows the disease involves the malfunction and death of neurons that produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As the amount of dopamine decreases, a person can experience difficulty with movement as well as other “non-motor” symptoms.

McLean points out that more than 10 years of research underlines a positive link between Parkinson’s disease, physical therapy and exercise.

“People with Parkinson’s really can get better and improve when they exercise consistently and participate in physical therapy regularly,” she said. “But when they are discharged from therapy, it is difficult to keep up with exercise. People often don’t know exactly what to do or how or where to do it. There are barriers to continuing exercise like a lack of confidence, motivation or even pain. That is where the LifeFit Center comes in. When you provide a program that is designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s under the supervision of therapists who specialize in Parkinson’s, you can design a better exercise program and help keep people motivated.”

According to McLean, the program at CSULB is “evidence-based” in that it uses the most current research in exercise to design the type, intensity, duration and frequency of exercise. The exercise class meets three times a week which is similar to the frequency of most research studies which show positive results. CSULB’s advantage is its accessibility.

“We know exercise is not readily available within the health care system,” said McLean. “Out in the community, they may have gyms available but they may not have the knowledge and expertise to help with a specific medical condition. With this type of space and equipment, we can address overall health, not just Parkinson’s. The LifeFit Center embodies the principles of ‘Exercise as Medicine.’ There are other people who have experienced a stroke or heart attack who could benefit from exercise as medicine, too. In Long Beach, there is no one else doing this. No one else provides this type of ongoing access to exercise.” McLean has been inspired by Parkinson Wellness Recovery, a non-profit based out of Tucson, Ariz., that runs a gym for individuals with Parkinson’s disease so they can access evidence-based exercise starting at diagnosis and throughout their lives.

Physical Therapy chair Jody Cormack applauds the new class. “When Claire McLean brought her proposal to us, we saw it as a great opportunity to provide a service for our community,” she said. “This is Claire’s program that we’re hosting here in the LifeFit Clinic. It is a service to help keep this community strong and fit.”

The LifeFit Center at CSULB encompasses 17,000 square feet, including a 3,000-square-foot fitness studio, two group fitness studios of 1,700 square feet and the main fitness area of 7,000 square feet. On the fitness floor, the LifeFit Center has more than 30 pieces of cardio equipment, ranging from treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes to rowing ergometers and krankcycles.

McLean believes in the power of exercise.

“Exercise improves cardiovascular and muscular function,” she said. “Exercise can actually improve how the brain functions. There is evidence that exercise may be able to slow the progression of Parkinson’s. We do know that it can help people feel better and do better.”

The key is the right kind of workout. Research shows improved brain volume and brain health comes from progressive aerobic exercise, according to McLean.

“People come three times a week between 3 and 4 p.m. for 45 minutes of aerobic exercise,” she said. “We currently have eight participants and we hope to grow that to 10 per class. We are looking forward to expanding and adding more classes as well. Although many people could do aerobic exercise on their own, my experience is that when people sign up for a class, they exercise much more consistently, and intensely, and therefore get more benefit. Our goal is that some will work out with us for a while in the class, and then transition to a LifeFit membership and others will continue with us in the class.”

The class offers research and career opportunities for participating CSULB students. “We have kinesiology interns who are interested in studying physical therapy or occupational therapy help with the class,” she explained. “It is important to us that every physical therapy student be exposed to the impact of exercise on Parkinson’s disease, because wherever they end up working, whether it is in a hospital or outpatient orthopedic clinic or a nursing facility or a rehabilitation facility, they will likely interact with someone who has Parkinson’s.”

Success is what helps McLean to maintain her commitment. She stays positive because she sees people get better.

“My experience is that people can have amazing improvements with consistent, intense, exercise,” she said. “The feedback I get from the class is often about the camaraderie participants build by meeting and exercising with other people. Sometimes those who have Parkinson’s withdraw from life. Taking part in a class like this can help people with Parkinson’s to feel more confident and comfortable with living their lives. It helps them maintain a better quality of life overall. It is very rewarding for all of us to provide a service to the community that is so unique.”

Cormack sees a bigger role for the class.

“We want to continue to serve the community,” she said. “It is important to have wellness even if you have a pathology like Parkinson’s. This class will help to maintain a well community. That’s our vision.”

For additional information, contact Claire McLean by e-mail or call 310-633-4273.