Written by Dr. Sarah King, PT, DPT
“What is one thing you could do before that you can’t do now and would like to get back to doing?”
This is one of the first questions I ask when I do a physical therapy evaluation because it unlocks everything.
Most people are aware that seeing a physical therapist can help improve their balance and reduce their risk for falling, improve their ability to walk faster and further and that it generally improves the quality of their life.
Did you just yawn?
It’s okay, I won’t take offense. It’s true, sometimes hearing about the research behind exercise-based interventions for Parkinson’s can be boring.
Why? Because it doesn’t mean anything to you. When physical therapy goals are set on general outcomes that don’t resonate with you, it can kill your motivation to stick with the program.
However, when you’re working with your physical therapist on goals that are meaningful to you and how you live your daily life, it changes the game. Suddenly, your “exercise homework” is an investment in your future instead of an inconvenience.
In the past, there have been a handful of things my clients didn’t realize a physical therapist could help them improve that were incredibly meaningful to them and their daily life.
If you’re struggling with any of these issues, make sure to seek out a Parkinson’s physical therapist in your area who will gladly help you conquer these challenges (and more!).
#1 - Getting out of bed
If you have a lot of rigidity in your torso and stiffness in your hips, rolling out of bed in the morning can feel like climbing a mountain. Your hips won’t scoot, your legs feel like a million pounds and suddenly your bed feels like it’s swallowing you whole.
Working with a Parkinson’s physical therapist to help improve the flexibility in your hips, shoulders and spine as well as train you on specific strategies to help you roll, flip and scoot will ensure you make it to the coffee maker without depleting all of your energy for the day.
Nancy Nelson from the PWR!Gym demonstrates a movement sequence to help with bed mobility and stiffness (credit: PWR!Gym)
#2 - Putting on your jacket
Getting dressed takes a lot of flexibility, balance and coordination. You have to be able to twist and reach into that jacket or shirt hole. You need some serious balance to lift one foot up to put inside a pant leg without having to sit on the edge of the bed. Exercise, in combination with smart clothing strategies, can save you a lot of time and frustration every day.
If you’re struggling with getting clothes on (or off) your body, your Parkinson’s physical therapist can help break down the movement into various exercises so you can get back to doing more on your own. If you struggle with the buttons, zippers and laces, make sure to include an occupational therapist in your treatment program and practice your hand exercises regularly.
#3 - Getting on and off the floor
A lot of things in life happen on the floor! Your grandkids play there. Your picnic blanket opens there. Your keys are dropped there. Your bulbs and seeds are planted there. The easier it is for you to get down there and back up again, the more you can participate in life. This may be why the ability to sit and rise from the floor is a significant predictor of all-cause mortality.
You may have given up getting on the floor for a variety of reasons. Do you have stiff hips? Does your knee or back hurt? Does it make you dizzy? Is it just extremely exhausting or scary? A Parkinson’s physical therapist can help you slowly but surely regain this valuable life skill!
Teri was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 10 years ago and continues to improve her ability to get on and off the floor (credit: Rogue Physical Therapy and Wellness)
#4 - Getting out of the car
Does the idea of running errands make you cringe because you hate having to get out of the car at each stop? You’re not alone. Getting out of the car (or any chair for that matter) requires a surprising amount of strength and flexibility in your hips and core. And, if you’re gone all day running errands, you need endurance too!
Not only can your Parkinson’s physical therapist help you regain the strength you need, but they can also give you some tips and strategies that will give you an advantage over gravity and rewire your brain-body connection for success.
Dr. Claire McLean, PT, DPT leads a PWR!Moves routine that helps with car transfers (credit: Rogue Physical Therapy and Wellness)
#5 - Walking around the grocery store
One of the most challenging Parkinson’s symptoms is the decreased ability to do two things at once. This is called dual-tasking and, as you know, daily life requires dual-tasking constantly!
Walking (motor task) around the grocery store searching (cognitive task) for the ketchup aisle and avoiding (motor + cognitive task) fast-moving carts and people moving in all directions can trigger gait dysfunction, freezing and anxiety.
Fortunately, this is a skill that can improve with training. A Parkinson’s physical therapist can identify exactly which exercise strategies would benefit you and your specific situation and challenge you accordingly without putting you at risk for falling or injury.
#6 - (Insert your big, hairy audacious goal here)
You know by now that just because you’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it doesn’t mean you have to stop dreaming big. What have you always wanted to do that you think is preposterous to strive for now?
Hiking the Andes with your son-in-law? Water skiing at your lakehouse? Taking that trip to Italy and walking the cobblestone streets? Running a 5K? Biking cross country?
I’d like to give you permission to give those dreams a voice. I promise your physical therapist would love to hear about them and help you work toward making them, or some variation of them, happen!
Get Your Parkinson's Plan of Attack
If you’re looking for help in getting your daily Parkinson’s exercise program off the ground, you can get your Parkinson’s Plan of Attack Foundations Checklist here. Designed to help you wake up each day confident and excited to take control of your Parkinson’s and live well, the checklist will remind you of the actions you can take each day to live with greater health, energy and joy.
About Dr. Sarah King, PT, DPT
Sarah is a passionate Parkinson’s advocate who founded Invigorate Physical Therapy & Wellness, an online wellness practice 100% specialized in Parkinson's disease, to help her clients get out of overwhelm and into action by connecting them with the tools and support they need to thrive over the course of their Parkinson’s journey. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband (and favorite human), Matt.