By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Hudson- In July of 2013, Hudson resident Mike Bleecker’s wife and daughter noticed he had a lip tremor and was shuffling his feet when walking. He went to a physician and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“One of the things the doctor told me,” Bleecker said, “was that if you take your medication and you exercise, it’ll probably be 10 or 15 years before anyone realizes you have Parkinson’s because the symptoms won’t be pronounced enough.”
Inspired to learn more about how medicine and exercise could help, he attended a “Victory Summit” put on by the Davis Phinney Foundation, where he met the founders of the Parkinson’s Network, a nonprofit organization that works to provide access to group exercises for every person with Parkinson’s.
The Parkinson’s Network classes are led by certified instructors and focus heavily on Parkinson’s disease symptoms and specific exercises to help restore lost functions.
According to Bleecker, one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s is depression. Finding out you have the disease can be pretty devastating, he said, but getting involved in exercise classes helps.
Bleecker started attending classes in March 2014 in Gainesville, Fla., an hour and 15 minutes from where he was living at the time. He found the classes enormously helpful.
“It helps you physically and it helps you mentally,” Bleecker said. “The main thing it does for me – it helps you maintain or improve your quality of life if you’ve got Parkinson’s because you’re together with and meet a lot of nice people, and it helps you overcome depression.”
Bleecker participated in several Parkinson’s research projects that tested his baseline cognitive and physical capabilities, and then measured them annually to check for a change. He kept up his exercises and said he improved on the measures every year he was tested.
After six months of commuting to classes, Bleecker wanted a class closer to home. He decided to become certified to lead the classes himself, and began offering free classes at his local church.
According to Bleecker, people with Parkinson’s often shuffle their feet, making them a fall risk if they catch their toe on a rug.
“The exercises are exaggerated activities,” he explained, “You pick your feet up a lot higher, you raise your knees up a lot higher, you exercise practically every muscle in your body.”
The exercises are not strength training, but rather designed to build flexibility and increase balance. Balance, handwriting, voices and cognitive abilities are all affected by Parkinson’s, so exercises focus on all of these areas, Bleecker added.
Another symptom of Parkinson’s, Bleecker said, is you have no facial expressions.
“You’ll see people with poker expressions – they don’t smile – so we exercise the muscles in the face, we sing silly songs and we practice our vowels, with certain consonants; everything is exaggerated. It really looks silly.”
Bleecker loves watching people improve.
“The social part is important,” he said. “You see people really come out of their shells.”
Bleecker recently moved to Hudson and has begun offering free classes at the Hudson Senior Center and his new church, St. Michael’s Parish in Hudson.
The classes Bleecker offers are not limited to people with Parkinson’s. He encourages anyone in need of the exercises to come and stay active.
“We had someone who was in a car accident who was young who participated, and people in their 90s without Parkinson’s but who had limitations.”
According to Bleecker’s wife, Susan, the classes help caregivers as well, particularly through the social bonds made.
“There’s one couple who are aged,” Susan said, “and they do everything – they go on cruises and you look at them and you think when/if he gets worse we’re going to be OK.”
Bleecker truly enjoys being a certified instructor.
“I had a couple people come up and thank me for the class and say ‘You’ve saved my life. You got me out, you got me active,’ and I get emotional just talking about it.”