Cindy Brooks entered the fitness profession at a good time. In 1994 personal training was enjoying a newfound flourish of interest, and group fitness was a mainstay in health clubs. Corporate fitness was also all the rage, as many companies were flush with funds. Brooks started her own company, Anatomy Academy Inc., and used her training and skills to cater to residents in the Boca Raton, Florida, area. Then she experienced her first major obstacle.

“During the dot-com failures and subsequent stock-market deflation, corporations began to cut back,” Brooks says. “Unfortunately, the first item cut from budgets was the fitness program.” Brooks filled the empty spaces in her training schedule with some in-home sessions, but felt she should be doing more. “I wanted to give back to my community,” she says. “I volunteered at nursing homes and taught very gentle group exercise. The participants loved the social and physical benefits.”

It was during this phase of personal and professional enrichment that Brooks met a woman who had started a nonprofit organization to aid people with Parkinson’s disease. “This lady’s sister had been diagnosed with this debilitating disease at age 44,” Brooks says. “Although I didn’t know anyone with Parkinson’s, I wanted to volunteer and work with [this organization]. We decided to start an exercise program.”

A New Challenge

Brooks had always been interested in working with people who had chronic diseases, but she needed to prepare herself for this fresh venture. She also wanted to stay within her scope of practice. “I read everything I could on the Internet and from the National Parkinson Foundation, met with physical and speech therapists and spoke with neurologists,” Brooks says. “I took ACSM’s course on exercise management for people with chronic diseases. I then created a program that included elements to improve muscular strength and endurance, range of motion and balance, plus voice exercises.”

Brooks learned that people with Parkinson’s experience tremors, movement “freezing,” voice deterioration and loss of cognitive ability. “This poses some challenges in a group environment, where we have participants at varying stages of the illness,” she says. “I had to design a class for participants who would be mostly seated, to accommodate those who couldn’t perform rhythmic movements while standing. Those with severe symptoms must have their caregivers seated next to them, watching them carefully.”

The program consists of a 20-minute warm-up with stretches; 15 minutes of seated upper-body exercises with resistance bands; 15 minutes of lower-body exercises with ankle weights; and a 10-minute cooldown, which includes exercises for the throat muscles and vocal cords. “People with Parkinson’s have difficulty swallow-ing and projecting their voices,” says Brooks. “We count out loud and shout a word between repetitions. I also use word games to help stimulate their minds. For example, participants name a favorite fruit. Their job is to project their voices and count (“one mango, two mango, three mango . . .”). They have fun and work hard, too.”

The class started with six participants who came twice a week. After a month, Brooks started to see improvements. “They had more confidence; they appeared happier; and their strength had increased significantly. Their doctors and caregivers also noticed the improvement.”

Small Victories

Today, Brooks teaches more than 90 people six times a week. The city has given her a grant to continue the program, and she now holds classes in a beautiful gymnasium at the city park. Classes are free.

Participants say the class helps them return to a level of function they thought they’d never see again. Brooks relates the stories of two of her students. “Janice was having rapid balance, voice and memory decline. She has attended class regularly for well over a year. She has greatly improved her balance and can now speak on the phone again. She can also name every person at every class, and she makes it her business to announce this. Another student, Stan, couldn’t reach the cereal box on the top shelf of his pantry. After 3 months of class, he could once again reach the cereal box. He was also unable to drive and is now driving with confidence.”

Brooks says it can be intimidating at first to get started with a special population. But she hopes other fitness professionals will see the value in working with people who have chronic diseases. “The key is to have the desire—from the heart—to help,” she says. “They are so willing to do anything they deem may help their symptoms, and they work very hard to get better. An exercise leader shouldn’t be afraid of working with this population, as they are no more fragile than other people their age. You just need to learn about the symptoms, read the recommendations and special considerations, and be moderate. Don’t be too aggressive or too gentle. Be upbeat. Remind participants two to three times each class to take it at their own pace. This is the most rewarding work I have ever done, and I hope others will be inspired to do the same.”

Additional Resources

American Parkinson Disease Association Inc.,

National Parkinson Foundation,

Parkinson’s Disease Foundation,

Parkinson’s Information,

Parkinson Society Canada,

Take Charge! Cure Parkinson’s Inc.,

Young Onset Parkinson’s Association,

Inspire the World to Fitness™

IDEA’s campaign unites our members with those of other organizations in a joint effort to reach out to nonexercisers. Our commitment is to provide you with information and sources so you can act locally.

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