Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital pingpong class helps patients with Parkinson’s find community

Mike DeBartolo was an avid runner before he began noticing loss of balance and loss of coordination in his stride.

Then seven years ago, the Winnetka resident was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Though he continued to stay as active as possible, he soon realized there weren’t many spaces available for people with his condition where they could continue to do the things they enjoyed.

After his diagnosis, he began helping with a fundraiser that raised awareness and funding for research for a cure. But he began thinking of ways to do more.

“It occurred to me that as good as fundraising is, it wasn’t necessarily touching people with Parkinson’s immediately,” DeBartolo said. “I wanted to create something that’s helping people in the here and now.”

That is how he came up with Parkinson’s Players, a free program that helps patients connect exercise with play.

The Parkinson’s Players kick started last summer. In the warmer months, participants played golf or tennis, but as temperatures dropped they needed an indoor activity that would still allow them to get moving during the colder months.

“I’m play-oriented, and I think most of us are,” DeBartolo said. “There’s many fitness centers that have some focus on Parkinson’s, but what I hadn’t seen was play-based, activity-based exercise.”

For people with Parkinson’s, exercise is vital in helping slow the progression of the disease, which is a neurodegenerative condition that results in a loss of brain cells in particular parts of the brain at faster rates than normal aging that pertain in large part to movement. It also leads to cognitive issues such as memory problems and slow thinking.

Pingpong, or table tennis, is a game most people played during their younger years. What many probably don’t realize is how beneficial it can be to helping brain function, said Linda Egan, Parkinson’s program coordinator at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

“Research shows exercise is the only thing available that may slow progression of Parkinson’s,” Egan said. “Pingpong is beneficial because it addresses strength, balance, eye-hand coordination and motor planning, all of which are affected by Parkinson’s.”

While there are medications that can help treat physical and motor symptoms, experts say there is evidence that shows exercise and rehab may be able to slow down those changes in the brain.

“Involvement in a regular pingpong program may actually improve quality-of-life scores and movement scores,” said Dr. Neil Shetty, movement disorders specialist at Northwestern Medicine. “I have a number of patients who play regularly, and they kind of characterize it as an instrumental part of their exercise, and that they can see benefits that are mirrored in their day-to-day balance and coordination skills.”

Instructor Robert Owens helps a patient with her technique during a pingpong class at Edgewater Fitness Center.

Cindy Hernandez/Sun-Times

More than 30 people have participated since the pingpong class started in late December. On any given day, there are at least 12 people in a class, which takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center and Saturdays at the Edgewater Fitness Center.

Robert Owens, who has been instructing the group since the summer, said a patient can feel motivated when they see themselves getting better at something.

“These people come out and play table tennis, and they can see themselves get better at something,” Owens said. “It’s a small sport, but it’s an easy sport to get better at, more than tennis and some others, so you get a sense of progress.”

Though exercise is vital to helping patients with Parkinson’s, social interaction is just as important. Patients can often experience depression and anxiety when they are diagnosed, so social interaction can help improve patients’ mood. Pingpong allows the group to build connections with each other and improve their skills at the game, Egan said.

“Parkinson’s can be a very isolating disease, and we really want to get individuals with Parkinson’s in a social group,” Egan said. “Whether it’s an exercise class or pingpong, just something where they feel comfortable being with others and that gives them the opportunity to build friendships with people who are going through similar experiences.”

Parkinson's Pingpong

Patients play pingpong as a part of the Parkinson’s Players program at the Edgewater Fitness Center in early March.

Cindy Hernandez/Sun-Times

DeBartolo has experienced that firsthand.

“The friendship-making is what I’ve found to be even more important in this program,” DeBartolo said. “The program just started last summer, and it’s growing very nicely. I certainly didn’t know this many with Parkinson’s before this program began.”

DeBartolo said the Parkinson’s Players has created the community he was hoping for.

“Community enables you to empathize, and it enables you to relate to people who have a similar condition to you. It shows us that we’re not alone,” he said. “It’s not that we want other people to have Parkinson’s, but since people do, it’s important to socialize with each other because we can relate … we can share perspective.”

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