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"Fitness Counts" Unites Parkinson’s Disease Researchers and Activists

October 25, 2022
by Meaghan Harkins

The Yale Movement Disorders Division joined forces with the Parkinson’s Foundation at an event entitled “Fitness Counts” on October 14, 2022. The event took place at the Omni Hotel in New Haven and brought together local members of the Parkinson’s disease (PD) community to promote the benefits of exercise in Parkinson’s disease.

Veronica Santini, MD, clinical chief of the movement disorders division and inaugural director of the Comprehensive Parkinson Disease Care Program, kicked off the event with opening remarks to an enthusiastic crowd of patients, caregivers, clinicians and researchers, then handed the microphone over to resident Christine Gummerson, MD for an overview of current research. Dr. Gummerson presented the strong, current, scientific evidence that exercise may not only prevent the onset of PD, but also slow its progression in those already diagnosed.

Sule Tinaz, MD, PhD assistant professor of neurology, presented her latest findings in the “Brain Effects of High Intensity Exercise in Parkinson’s Disease” study. Her current research, which is pre-publication, explored exercise-induced changes in people with Parkinson’s related to physical function, overall wellbeing, and importantly, structures in the brain. The 11 participants completed a six-month course of high-intensity exercise three times per week and were evaluated both before and after the exercise intervention. The promising results replicated prior studies in demonstrating improvements in motor function tests and enhanced physical and mental wellbeing. For the first time, these results establish increased dopaminergic signaling in the substantia nigra, the part of the brain that hosts dopamine-producing neurons and is affected in PD. These encouraging results reinforce the known benefits of exercise while guiding us closer to answers on how and why it works.

Michelle Hespeler, founder of Beat PD Today, rounded out the presentations with her personal story of early-onset PD and some interactive exercise demonstrations. Through her non-profit, Beat PD Today, Michelle now brings research-based workouts, personal training, and wellness programming specific to people with PD in seven locations throughout Connecticut and one in North Carolina. Her lively presentation engaged audience members in some chair-based exercises and demonstrated simple yet effective ways to get the heart pumping for those with limited mobility.

The event concluded with a raffle and a Q&A discussion. Attendees were eager participants and an engaging discourse ensued. The enthusiastic reception made it clear that additional events bridging the gap between academia and patient experience are needed for the local Parkinson’s community. The Yale Movement Disorders Division looks forward to more events in the future that bridge this divide and further unite the PD community in the quest for a cure.

Submitted by Allison Greco on October 25, 2022