La Grande resident Mike Wood was “crushed” when, three years ago in May, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“I said, ‘This is totally screwed up,’” Wood said. “I know the prototype image of the aging Parkinson’s patient. I know what it looks like.”
But the doctor who gave him the diagnosis, Jeff Kraakevik, a neurologist at OHSU in Portland, also gave him a source of hope.
“He said, ‘What I would recommend to you is you start exercising harder than you’ve ever exercised before. Keep moving,’” Wood said.
Wood, now 61, a former teacher, coach, principal and superintendent at Union, took that message to heart. Within days of the diagnosis, he began working with a trainer at Mountain Valley Fitness.
Three years later, the exercise routine appears to be helping slow the progression of the disease, and now Wood, who recently became a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer, is inspiring and encouraging others with his own progress.
“His story is almost unreal,” said Derek Harmon, lead personal trainer at Mountain Valley. “To have him in here and to share his story with a lot of members and clients, I think really help keeps them motivated and encouraged. (It) gives them hope that in their worst-case scenario, they can come out of that.”
The early signs
Wood said he began to notice signs of the disease seven or eight years prior to his 2014 diagnosis, but at the time wasn’t aware it was Parkinson’s. A couple early signs included restless leg syndrome, a diminishment but not full loss of his ability to smell, and his left arm shaking when working out.
“But I didn’t have enough of a picture to put together and figure out what (the symptoms) meant,” he said. “I was in denial.”
A tremor in his left pinky, which he first noticed in 2010, eventually triggered a visit to the doctor in 2012. At that point, he was initially diagnosed with essential tremor, defined on WebMD as “a nerve disorder characterized by uncontrollable shaking, or ‘tremors,’ in different parts and on different sides of the body.”
But a tremor in his thumb sent him to seek a second opinion in 2014, which led to the Parkinson’s diagnosis by Kraakevik.
“I was totally crushed. That was a difficult bit of information to get,” Wood said. “Parkinson’s robs you of hope, because it’s incurable at this point. The first thing you lose is hope.”
Hitting the gym
Kraakevik’s prescription for Wood was exercise. The doctor has treated Parkinson’s patients since 2004, and said the idea of treating the disease with exercise was new then.
“What we did here in 2004 was on the forefront of exercise science,” he said, citing a study with mice that showed there was less progression of the disease in the brains of mice that were made to run as opposed to those that didn’t.
The reason for optimism is growing for those kind of results in humans, too.
“(The move) beyond just ‘exercise is good’ to ‘exercise is good for PD because it may alter the course of the disease’ has evolved in the last five years,” Kraakevik said.
According to Kraakevik, exercise increases dopamine, which is created by the substantia nigra in the brain. In a person with Parkinson’s, the neurons in this part of the brain deteriorate, dopamine is lost, and connections sent to the basal ganglia, which helps initiate movement, are affected.
Exercise gets the dopamine flowing, and can even help reestablish the connection.
“The nerves grow out to connect to override the problem area,” Kraakevik said. “Exercise drives that process. In effect, it’s basically rewiring the brain.”
Wood hit the gym right away with personal trainer Cody Laurence. Exercises ranged from weightlifting to various workouts with a BOSU ball, which you stand on and maintain balance as you exercise.
Laurence moved on from Mountain Valley Fitness, and Wood began training with Harmon about a year ago.
What Wood has been able to accomplish in the last three years would make most 61-year-olds happy, let alone a person with Parkinson’s. Wood has lost approximately 30 pounds and is down to about 21 percent body fat. What’s more, he’s moved into powerlifting and is hoping to compete in a powerlifting competition in October. His combined weight about three months ago was 180 pounds for bench press, 250 for squats and 275 for deadlift.
And while he said the disease has progressed some over the last three years, Wood is still maintaining his function at a level close to the first diagnosis.
“My gait hasn’t changed much. I don’t have really good arm swing in my left arm, but a common loss is arm swing,” he said. “But I run. I jump. I lift. I do more than I did when I was 50 years old. Way more.”
His progress has even shocked Kraakevik, especially after he saw a video of Wood doing deadlifts while standing on a BOSU ball.
“I’ve talked to a couple of physicians around here about the video (of him) doing deadlifts,” Kraakevik said. “Pretty much everyone was amazed by that.”
Harmon approached Wood earlier this year about leading a senior circuit class. The next day, the ante was upped when Wood was asked about becoming a certified personal trainer to work with some of the older clientele at Mountain Valley.
Wood now works with 12 people in the senior circuit class, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s, and even early 90s. He also personally trains seven individuals.
“One of my clients is a person who has Parkinson’s,” he said. “This person is about 14 years older than me, but we enjoy working out together and I try to do some of the things (with) this person that helped me.”
Harmon said Wood is an inspiration to many at Mountain Valley, including himself.
“It’s been a pleasure having him around here,” Harmon said.