IN BALANCE — Movement as Medicine

September 5, 2018

By Lisa Gibson

Pilates for People with Parkinson’s

I am so happy to be back with the Bay View Compass!

It’s been close to a year since my last column and it has been a busy year indeed.

Last year, after teaching one of my Poolates classes, a woman walked up to me in the locker room in tears. Because this was the first time she had taken the class, I assumed the worst but what she shared with me literally changed my life. (Poolates is a method that takes the principles of Pilates and translates them into aquatic exercise—so Pilates in the pool.)

She told me she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six months earlier and that the class she’d just completed was the first time since her diagnosis that she felt competent and safe.

Parkinson Disease is a progressive degenerative neuromuscular disorder whose symptoms include uncontrollable tremors, stiffness and or rigidity, loss of balance control, and slowness of movement.

She asked if I could help her. She was trying to do her physical therapy exercises but was terrified of falling.

Shortly after I spoke with her, I read about a program in Great Britain called Pilates for Parkinson’s and Neuromuscular Disorders. I applied for the program, was accepted, and I moved to England for nine months to take the course.

The course was fascinating and the work was phenomenal. The people—the practitioners, patients, and other students—were wonderful. I was truly privileged to be part of this group, and I am happy to say I am now a certified Pilates for Parkinson’s practitioner. 

When working with someone with Parkinson’s, where we start with Pilates exercise depends on the interval between diagnosis and the beginning of the Pilates work, and we practitioners always work closely with a client’s health care provider.

For safety purposes, we primarily use the Reformer and the Cadillac, two classic pieces of Pilates equipment. Because this equipment is chair height, or higher, the client does not need to be able to get down to the floor, an important safety issue because the stiffness and  lack of balance may cause difficulties both in getting down to the floor and getting back up. 

Depending on the abilities of the client, we may also use other Pilates equipment or add balls, foam rollers, or disks to increase exercise difficulty when appropriate.

It is important to remember that while Pilates is helpful for neuromuscular disorders, it is not a cure for Parkinson’s or any other neuromuscular disorders. The work enables people to live active, engaged lives for as long as possible by improving core body strength, maintaining or increasing range of motion in affected joints and limbs, and increasing balance capabilities.

Pilates exercises for clients with Parkinson’s can be modified to suit any degree of ability, which allows two things to occur. First, the workouts may mitigate or delay the onset of the more serious symptoms of the disease, and second, as the disease progresses, exercises can be changed to allow the client to continue to exercise and maintain strength and flexibility.

For many clients, the ability to engage in physical activity and the knowledge that they have some modicum of control over their bodies are major benefits.

The degree of disability contributes to the class size. In general, the work can be done in small groups of four or less, but when more serious symptoms are present, the sessions can be provided on an individual basis, including in the client’s home. 

The physical and mental benefits of movement have long been proven. Now that I am back in the U.S., my plan is to take this work and put it into the pool. The rehabilitative benefits of water have long been recognized and there is the added bonus of the safety of the water. If the client falls, they are not in danger of breaking a hip, or otherwise injuring themselves. 

It is a great privilege to be able to offer the benefits of exercise to people who have a pressing need for such help.


Lisa Gibson is a 500 Hour Certified Pilates Instructor through Active IQ UK, Certified Pilates for Neuromuscular Disorder Specialist, Pilates Matwork certified through PhysicalMind Institute Santa Fe, a presenter for SCW Fitness an ACE, AFFA, AEA certified instructor, and owner of Tranquilitybodyworks.

To contact Lisa Gibson:

Disclaimer: The information provided in this column is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice or care.

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