Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — Before she and a group of Stephens Family YMCA personal trainers took a trip to St. Louis to learn about and receive certification to lead exercise classes with people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Jenny Redden didn’t have a full grasp of the concept.

Sure, she knew that exercise helped those with the disease, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement,” but it also helps with other muscle disorders.

Then, a group of people with Parkinson’s was brought in, and it became abundantly clear why these classes exist.

“I didn’t understand why it had to be only for people who had Parkinson’s — because there are a lot of muscle disorders — until I was standing outside in St. Louis and all of the people coming to class came and they gathered and came in and talked to each other about what’s going on,” Redden said. “I just realized it was also a support group within the class.”

This summer, the Stephens Family YMCA began offering three exercise classes each week for people living with Parkinson’s, including a cycling class, an interval class and a class in which the participants sit for most of the time and work on functional movements with a ball and a weight.

Among the 26 or so people who attend the classes, a wide range of abilities exists.

Some, like Dave McWilliams, are in the early stages of Parkinson’s.

“I’ve only been diagnosed for about two months,” McWilliams said, “and so I don’t really have a lot of symptoms that are obvious, but I’m trying to get ahead of it.”

Along with the three exercise classes, McWilliams also takes part in Rock Steady Boxing, a boxing class for those with Parkinson’s. Redden said classes were designed to fit alongside, and not overlap with, Rock Steady Boxing.

Boxing, though, didn’t exactly fit Wayne Yonce’s personality. So he was glad when Redden announced the new classes.

And just a few weeks in, he thinks he’s seeing results already.

“They say the best medicine is exercise,” he said. “I happened to be in yesterday to see the doctor, and it was good. He said, ‘We’re not going to change your drugs or anything.’”

Redden and the YMCA tapped into the Parkinson’s Support Group of Champaign County, which meets on Mondays at the Savoy United Methodist Church, by visiting the group before the classes began.

The class is free, and it’s opened her eyes to what simple exercise can do for those with Parkinson’s.

“The cycling is amazing,” she said, “because when you have a person with Parkinson’s who has difficulty walking or they might experience the freezing and the shaking a lot, once you get them on the bike and they start pedaling, that motion keeps carrying them. They are really able to work pretty hard in that locked environment where they can’t get off the bike, and that momentum keeps them going.

“Even if they’re struggling or shaking, we still want them to be able to exercise. As far as picking the exercises for the other classes, they’re pretty much functional movement. The body spends a lot of time going forward and back and up and down, so we try to go on the diagonal and side to side just to work on stability.”

Redden said the YMCA hopes the class grows with every session.

And while she teaches classes throughout the week, she’s realized this one has been the most rewarding.

“They’re just 100 percent happy to be here,” she said. “They have a fun attitude, a little bit of sass. But they just really want to be here. They really enjoy it and it’s just a pleasure working with them.

“It’s been easier than I thought. It’s just a good feeling thing to work with people that need your help to have a better day.”

Multimedia Specialist

Anthony Zilis is a multimedia specialist at The News-Gazette. His email is azilis@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@adzilis).