A desire to start a support group for the Parkinson’s community at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital has become an innovative medical fitness program that provides social support and more at Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center.

We talked with Lake Forest Hospital Parkinson’s Program Coordinator Linda Egan about the program and the wealth of resources it provides to people with Parkinson’s and their care partners.

Tell us how the Parkinson’s medical fitness program at Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center started.

The fitness program first started because of community interest in a support group for people with Parkinson’s. With funds from Northwestern Medicine Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center, a support group of around 20 people was started at NM Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center in 2015. We also started a couple of exercise classes, first a pedaling class and then a dance class, with about 4-6 participants. As those programs started going, we had more community interest in our classes, which led to funds from donors that allowed us to grow.

Today we’re a completely donor funded program, thanks to generous individuals in our community, with 65-70 people in our support groups and 240 people on the rosters for our Parkinson’s exercise classes. We are also a collaborative effort between Northwestern Medicine Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center in Chicago, NM Lake Forest Hospital and NM Central DuPage Hospital.

Tell us about Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center.

Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center is a community-based fitness center that also offers medical fitness programs and outpatient rehabilitation services. Physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech language pathology are offered at the center along with gym facilities and exercise classes. Our medical fitness programs are a team effort between our rehab specialists and our exercise instructors, who we provide with quarterly in-service trainings and other types of support so that they get to know the nuances of Parkinson’s and our participants. For example, last year we hosted the Brian Grant Foundation exercise for Parkinson’s training for our staff members.

Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center is open to the public and we have people in our Parkinson’s medical fitness program who receive care at other hospital systems in the area. We include anyone in the community in our programs and our Parkinson’s exercise classes are provided for free. We receive referrals from physicians at Northwestern Medicine as well as from physicians outside of Northwestern Medicine. We also get a lot of referrals from word of mouth since we’re the only hospital-based Parkinson’s fitness program in the area.

What types of Parkinson’s exercise classes are offered at Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center?

We offer nine fitness classes at varying levels of difficulty, so 20 different opportunities to sign up for classes Monday through Friday. Our classes are tailored to the level of the people in the classes and care partners can also join. We offer Rock Steady Boxing, Functional Fitness, Pedal for Parkinson’s, Strength & Balance, Stride & Strength, TRX for Parkinson’s, Yoga for Parkinson’s, and Aquatics classes. In addition to our regular exercise classes, we also offer comedy Improv and horseback riding.

Tell us about horseback riding!

Our horseback riding program is once a week and participants ride for a half hour and then groom their horse for a half hour. Participants have reported improvements in coordination, balance, gait, flexibility, and posture. When you’re on a horse, you’re continually challenged to make small adjustments to stay on the horse and maintain posture, which has amazing benefits. We’ve seen participants who are forward flexed when they start riding and over a couple of weeks, their posture is improved.

Horseback riding also promotes cognition. And then there’s just the sheer joy of riding. The smiles on people’s faces are unbelievable! Grooming has also helped decrease anxiety, as people feel a connection with the horse without judgment. Participants say they feel grooming their horses is also a way they can give back to the program. Plus, many of our participants rode when they were younger so this program gives them a chance to keep doing the things that they love to do.

How has the Parkinson’s fitness program changed since the beginning of COVID?

In March, we stopped all classes and sent emails to participants with links to online resources, like the Brian Grant Foundation’s exercise videos. We tried to stay in touch with everyone by sending out weekly and biweekly emails and connecting people to one another. People were helping each other out, with things like grocery shopping, and I was also emailing people individually to check in.

Once Illinois moved into phase 3, we started some outdoor exercise classes and personal training. We now have six classes indoors, with only 10 participants in each class and social distance maintained. We’re constantly evaluating what else we can do while following the Illinois safety guidelines because staying at home has been very hard for our Parkinson’s group. They are very social and have deep rooted relationships with each other. They’ve also found that their exercise instructors keep them safe and make sure they are doing activities correctly. Exercise videos are helpful, but the intensity is not the same without exercise instructors and friendly competition in class.

Anything else you would like to share?

I love my job! I feel like I’m blessed to be in this position with Northwestern Medicine where we work hard to have a patient-centered approach to the management of Parkinson’s. My dad had Parkinson’s and I understand this disease as a clinician, family member and community member. I understand the importance of promoting relationships so that people with Parkinson’s know they have a team behind them that can help them manage whatever is in front of them. The people in our Parkinson’s community know that they are not alone.

To learn more about the Parkinson’s program at Lake Forest Hospital and Lake Forest Health and Fitness Center, please contact Linda Egan at Linda.Egan@nm.org.