Dance instructor Linda Berghoff was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) 10 years ago.
"When I was diagnosed, the thought that I would no longer dance again terrified me," she told NPR. "I'd be stripped of the thing I love the most."
Today, she teaches dance in Venice, CA as part of Dance for PD, a program that offers dance classes specifically tailored for people with Parkinson's. Thousands of people around the country have participated since the program began 15 years ago.
The combination of dancing and Parkinson’s disease may not seem intuitive. As movement becomes more painful or difficult, people with Parkinson’s disease have a tendency to move less. A recent study suggests that decreasing physical activity can make motor symptoms worse. Likewise, the study also found that regular exercise and moving more during the day can help improve motor symptoms.
Researchers wonder if dance is just another exercise option, or if it might hold unique benefits for people with Parkinson's. Many Dance for PD participants report that the classes help them improve balance and flexibility, and small scientific studies suggest the same.
The self-expression involved in dancing can also be meaningful. Parkinson’s disease symptoms sometimes impact facial expressions and body language. The rhythm of dance can make movement easier and more fluid. Plus, as Berghoff can attest, dance can simply be fun.
Dr. Pietro Mazzoni, who teaches neurology at Columbia University, is digging deeper into whether that emotional layer adds something important. NPR spoke with Dr. Mazzoni about his latest research:
One of the theories he'll be testing is that people with Parkinson's move less because the disease triggers more than tremors and other physical symptoms — it also robs them of their ability to enjoy moving.
"I've heard patients spontaneously describe the beginning of their symptoms using language like, 'I didn't enjoy walking with my husband anymore,'" Mazzoni says. "'I could do it; it just wasn't fun.'"
So Mazzoni's work will look at psychological factors as well as physical ones. Then he'll compare the dancers to people getting traditional physical therapy.
Overall, the latest research strongly suggests that any physical activity can help Parkinson’s disease symptoms, especially if you find an activity you’ll enjoy and stick with. If dance is one of your favorite activities, or if you’ve always wanted to learn, check out a Dance for PD class in your area. Local community centers may also offer classes specifically for people with Parkinson’s.