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Exercise
By John Hanc

The Benefits of Rock Climbing for Parkinson’s Disease

Rock-Climbing.jpg
Image Courtesy of Upending Parkinson's

Teresa Bennett first noticed a tremor in her left hand and leg in early 2015. Three years later, the tremor became worse and new symptoms arose. “I had stiffness and dizziness and was often really tired at the end of the day,” she says. But it wasn't until February 2020 that she was referred to a movement disorder specialist and diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. “I left the doctor's office confused and in shock…scared of what the future would bring,” she says.

Two years later, Bennett, 66, has found a surprising way to deal with the disease: rock climbing. She joined Upending Parkinson's, a program designed specifically for people with the disorder, and now regularly scales 60-foot climbing walls. The activity has eased some of her symptoms and boosted her confidence—and she's made many new friends. “Like a lot of people with Parkinson's, I think I experienced anxiety and depression at first,” says Bennett, who lives in Ashburn, VA, with her husband, Jack. “Because of climbing, I don't have that anymore.”

“When you think about Parkinson's and other movement disorders, you don't immediately think, ‘Let me go scale a rock wall,’” says Drew Falconer, MD, director of the Inova Parkinson's and Movement Disorders Center in Fairfax, VA. “But that's the beauty of it. It's something unexpected—and effective.”

It's effective because climbing is complex, says Dr. Falconer. “You need to integrate so many systems to get up safely.” It requires coordination, balance, and large and small muscle strength. Climbers use large leg muscles to propel upward and small finger muscles to grab handholds as they move toward the top. “There's all this sensory and motor input that climbing integrates,” Dr. Falconer says. “The systems that keep a lot of people with Parkinson's from moving in a fluid, effortless way are the same ones we retrain when we have to climb a wall.”

The idea for Upending Parkinson's came to Molly Donelan—a climbing instructor and program director for Sportrock Climbing Centers in Alexandria and Sterling, VA—in 2012 when an anesthesiologist named Jon Lessin, who has Parkinson's disease, contacted her about private climbing lessons. Before long, she found other people with the disorder who wanted to try. As participants began showing progress and enjoying themselves, they spread the word. Local neurologists like Dr. Falconer started recommending patients.

“As neurologists, we can treat the chemical deficiency at the root of Parkinson's disease very effectively,” says Dr. Falconer. “But there's a component of doing well with Parkinson's that involves rehabilitating the body to learn to move better. And that's the benefit of climbing. It strengthens legs, the core, and fine motor skills. And it's highly effective for developing coordination of movement.”

The first day Bennett arrived at Sportrock, she stared in awe at the towering walls, built at varying angles, throughout the 35,000-square-foot facility. “I was intimidated,” she says. “I didn't think I could do it.” Moving cautiously at first, she made her way up one of the beginner routes, grabbing one handhold after another as she got closer and closer to the top. When she got there, she says, “I felt great—like I'd really accomplished something.” Standing below and watching his wife, Jack felt a mix of emotions. “Pride,” he says. “And amazement.”

Since that day, Jack says, he has seen improvements in his wife's condition—which he attributes in part to her climbing, which she does three to four times a week. Her left hand, for instance, used to be cupped, and now it's straight. And she would often hold her left arm close to her body as if to protect it. “Now that rarely happens,” says Jack. “Before when she walked, she sometimes shuffled her feet. Now that almost never happens either.” And there is something else: “Climbing improved her spirits,” says Jack.

“As with every form of exercise— especially those that integrate different motor, balance, and sensory systems— climbing has been shown in my patients to significantly improve many symptoms of Parkinson's disease,” says Dr. Falconer.

A paper published in the journal npj Parkinson's Disease in 2021 found that climbing was associated with improvements in a range of symptoms, including stiffness, slow movement, and tremor. And people stayed with it: The study of 48 people with Parkinson's disease, none of whom had climbed before, showed a 99 percent adherence rate for the 12-week program.

Upending Parkinson's meets twice a week, and its 20 members include people of every ability. “I've met a guy in a wheelchair and a couple of people who had great difficulty walking,” Bennett says. She watched in awe as they were strapped into their harnesses and, with Donelan or another instructor acting as “belayer” (the person holding the rope to which the climber is attached), made their way to the top of the wall—following any number of routes mapped out by colorcoded handholds (which simulate the outcroppings of rocks in the outdoors).

To the outsider or novice, climbing might seem dangerous, says Donelan. “Some people may think we're crazy for trying this,” she says. “But participants are harnessed to ropes, so they're safely secured.”

One of the biggest benefits may be the camaraderie, says Indira Subramanian, MD, professor of neurology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. “Social connection is a basic human need. Our data have shown that being lonely is as bad for us as regular exercise is good for us,” says Dr. Subramanian, who is also director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Southwest Parkinson's Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Center. For that reason, rock climbing is “a double bonus,” she says. “It's the value of the exercise and the value of the socialization.”

“Getting together with like-minded people is a big part of what makes climbing such fun,” says 80-year-old Erwin Stierle of Vienna, VA, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2014 and has been a part of Upending Parkinson's for seven years. It's a great workout, he adds: “You exercise your whole body and your mind. It's a never-ending challenge.”

For Bennett, rock climbing has been transformative. “I definitely feel more in control of my life and my disease,” she says. “Rock climbing has given me purpose.” She does Pilates to supplement her ascents up the Sportrock walls. “I'm stronger, healthier, happier.” And despite her Parkinson's, Bennett says, “I think I'm in the best shape of my life.”


Climbing for Other Conditions

Climbing rock walls can benefit people with neurologic conditions other than Parkinson's disease. At Cornell University's Lindseth Climbing Center in Ithaca, NY, instructors have helped people with various disabilities, including cerebral palsy and blindness, reach the top. A review in Frontiers in Physiology in 2017 looked at studies on climbing and multiple sclerosis and concluded that it may improve some symptoms, such as fatigue, and can contribute to an enhanced quality of life. The review also debunked the perception that climbing is dangerous, citing an average injury rate of 0.002 per 1,000 hours of climbing.

For David Barnes, an avid climber in Hobart, Tasmania, in Australia, who sustained a traumatic brain injury, climbing helps in two ways. “First, the climbing community accepted me as I am and included me straightaway,” he says. “Second, the all-consuming mind-body quality allows me to choose my own level and go at a pace my brain and body can handle.”

In 2017, outerwear retailer North Face established the Adaptive Climbing Initiative, which aims to make every climbing facility in the country accessible for people with disabilities. (There are more than 500 climbing gyms in the United States, according to Climbing Business Journal.) To find a gym that offers an adaptive climbing course, visit paradoxsports.org.

If your local facility doesn't have an accessible program, it may offer private instruction, which can cost about $50 to $100 per hour. No special clothing is required, and equipment can be rented or borrowed at the climbing facility. Adaptive programs may have gear such as chairs and harnesses for specific disabilities.

Most instructors start beginners just a few feet off the ground and proceed in a more horizontal direction, says Boone Speed, cofounder of Grasshopper Climbing, a Salt Lake City-based manufacturer of climbing walls. “You can climb and never get more than three feet off the ground,” he says. Another advantage of going low and slow: “You don't have to start by facing your fear of heights,” says Speed.

Before joining any program, talk to your neurologist. A good source of information is Common Climber (Common Climber), a magazine that regularly devotes articles to adaptive climbing for those with disabilities, including neurologic conditions.

As people with neurologic conditions like Barnes and Teresa Bennett, a climber with Parkinson's disease, have found, support within the climbing community is, well, rock solid. “Climbers are an eclectic bunch and tend to attract folks from the periphery,” Barnes says. “We just fit in.”