Published: May 23, 2014
GREENWOOD, Ind. (AP) — The first steps were feeble, tentative and weak.
Parkinson's disease had robbed Bill McFerran of his ability to walk and lift objects on his own.
But week after week, the Greenwood resident kept working. Regular exercise allowed him to move his arms over his head, to step deftly from side to side and to get up out of a chair without help.
Soon, his stride grew longer and his legs stronger.
"They teach you to think about every step, until you do it so much that you don't have to think," McFerran told the Daily Journal. "It becomes natural, like it used to be."
McFerran and dozens of others like him have found a counterbalance to their condition. The Climb is a specially designed exercise program to fight Parkinson's disease, putting men and women through a series of low-impact workouts.
The result is increased strength, improved mobility and possibly the reversal of the disease on the brain.
"It's a place for people to come without the fear of judgment. Exercise is so important, but often they feel like they can't go to a regular gym because people are looking at them," said Lindsay Conn, a personal trainer and leader of The Climb in Greenwood. "That's not the case here. Everyone is going through the same thing here."
Participants gather each Saturday at New Hope Church in the Center Grove area to get in a workout.
Ed Jeffers, a southside resident, started at The Climb about two years ago, though he had recently missed sessions after having surgery. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 3½ years ago, and as his body became more rigid and unmoving, he searched for anything to help.
"I'm getting to the point where I wanted to try anything. I've always thought that exercise is good for you," he said.
Patients range from those recently diagnosed with the disease to those who have been dealing with it for more than 20 years.
Some came with walkers or canes. Others could stand on their own, while certain members used the backs of their chairs for support.
But regardless of the severity of their condition, all tried their best to do the exercises.
They roll their heads in wide circles to stretch their necks and do the same with their arms. With 2½-pound hand weights, they completed bicep curls and shoulder presses.
In between, they walked laps around the gymnasium to keep loose.
"People with Parkinson's often have trouble moving. They stop moving, and then they have to deal with those cardiovascular and other health problems as well," Conn said.
The Climb was developed by the Indiana Parkinson's Foundation to help patients work on mobility and balance. Much of the curriculum is based on the book "Delay the Disease" by David Zid.
Zid, a fitness instructor in Ohio, has specialized in fitness for older adults as well as those with debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's.
The class is based on research that has proved the benefits of exercise for people with Parkinson's, Conn said.
New evidence suggests that exercise can change how the disease affects the brain, protecting the neurological systems to halt the progression of Parkinson's.
"We want to get people out and moving and emphasize the importance of exercise in managing the disease," she said.
Classes are conducted in Noblesville and downtown Indianapolis. The Climb has been going in Greenwood since 2011.
Bob McKnight was one of the first patients to participate in The Climb program in Greenwood. Suffering from Parkinson's disease since 1999, the Greenwood resident was dismayed that no medicine seemed to slow the disease's destruction.
"All of the other medicine wasn't working," he said. "I needed to try something and heard about this."
Exercise proved to be the elixir he needed. It provided an outlet to build his muscles that he had never found before.
McKnight, now 77, slowly regained the ability to walk without help and could stand up straight.
Living his life without fear of falling and injuring himself was the most liberating.
"When you take hard lumps, you realize that it's a long ways down," he said.
McFerran, 74, is a four-year veteran of the program.
When he was diagnosed in 2008, his neurologist wanted to run some tests. He had McFerran stand in a corner then move his body to walk back to him. The Parkinson's disease was so extreme that he couldn't even maneuver his body to do it.
His doctor had recommended physical therapy to keep his body strong and limber. Through his therapist, he learned about programs such as The Climb that catered particularly to Parkinson's patients.
"It's made such a big difference to me, and I can tell that it does to everyone else," McFerran said.
In the three years that Conn has been working with patients at The Climb, she has seen tremendous improvements. People who had come into the class using walkers or motorized carts could stand and walk on their own.
The Climb also has become a de facto support group, where people can talk about how Parkinson's disease is affecting them and their families.
"It's been very exciting to see people make changes, such as moving better and being able to get up on their own," Conn said. "We do a lot of exercises that involve getting up and down out of a chair, so seeing them get better at that is very exciting."