Russ Sorenson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly nine years ago, when he was 56 years old, but he was experiencing symptoms five years before that, most prominently lacking a sense of smell.
Losing your sense of smell wasn’t correlated with Parkinson’s at the time, so Sorenson continued as the director of systems engineering at Lockheed Martin for several years, though the disease progressed.
Once diagnosed, he tried many medical regimes to manage the progression of the disease but craved more. “When you have Parkinson’s, you have a lack of balance, and you shake. You lack motor senses [and develop] depression and obvious anxiety over what the course of the disease may ultimately lead to.”
By the time someone with Parkinson’s disease starts to show outside symptoms, about 80 percent of the nerve cells have already died. The disease affects the way you move and breaks down your nerve cells, which make the chemical dopamine that sends signals to the part of your brain that controls your movement. There is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease.
Not happy with the medical regime he was taking, Sorenson began searching for other alternatives. “The current medicines are all in the realm of trying to help control the symptoms,” he says. “They introduce dopamine surrogates, which you take every day, increasing the levels with the course of the disease. You walk the fine line with needing the dopamine to operate in society, but if you take too much you develop a negative reaction.” He was inspired by an active approach based on fitness classes in NoVA but found there were none geared toward Parkinson’s patients near him. He pushed for a class at Sport and Health in Reston to create a community for those with the disease to come together in a comfortable environment. The first session, sponsored by Parkinson’s Foundation of the National Capital Area, started in May.
After a few months of attending the class, Sorenson says it “helps with motor symptoms. It helps your sense of balance so you can avoid falls. Working on balance in terms of simply turning around and not running into the kitchen cabinet helps me a great deal.” Now he is able to maintain being active and is even able to golf a few times a week.
The class is taught by Natalie McCall, a certified exercise physiologist and health coach who says the class is “a support group where [participants] don’t have to talk about [Parkinson’s] but they get to do functional things instead of sitting down at home, letting the day drift away.
“Exercise is a natural help for the disease,” she says. “It definitely helps slow down the progression, and [participants] leave feeling stronger, better, more motivated and more positive. I can’t say that it cures them necessarily, but it puts a good spin on the healing.”
The improvements don’t come easily though, McCall says. “Starting out in the class, participants find that they have lost a lot of balance and they don’t have great coordination,” she says.
Sorenson says, “In my case, the exercise helps trigger the production of dopamine in the remaining healthy cells I have left, so it decreases the amount of the medicine I have to take down to the minimum.”
But the class is more than just coming in, lifting some weights, balancing and leaving. “It addresses the social support that one may need,” Sorenson says. “I find being in a vibrant, social environment can help with your outlook that you can still do things even though you may have a hindrance.”
The hourlong class is offered Mondays at 11:45 a.m.; a Sport and Health membership is not required to attend. This is one of several classes sponsored by the Parkinson’s Foundation of the National Capital Area. Sign up here.