A Ballet Master’s Balancing Act to Fight Parkinson’s

SMOOTH MOVE: Can an exercise and diet regimen along with self-discipline lessen Parkinson’s pain? (Library of Congress, 1917)

Could ballet master Alexander Tressor mobilize exercise, diet and stress reduction to keep his Parkinson’s-related pain and other symptoms at bay? Ten years after his diagnosis, here’s how his DIY protocol is playing out.

Alexander Tressor was 47 and living in Manhattan when a neurologist gave him what he stoically calls “The Bad News.” A Russian-born ballet master, Tressor says hearing the word “Parkinson’s was like getting hit by a lightning bolt. Then hearing “No cure . . . ” was like getting hit again. But Tressor is a resilient kind of guy. And an optimist. So he set about figuring out how he could sidestep the worst of what Parkinson’s could throw at him. And he wanted to do it without going on the usual cocktail of meds. He learned exercise and diet were game-changers with this disease. Would it be possible for him to take the self-discipline and insights he gained from ballet and use them to thwart the progression of Parkinson’s?

“The biggest lesson is that you can overcome a lot of stuff if you’re disciplined. You’ve got to develop the necessary habit of working harder to beat this thing than how hard Parkinson’s is working to beat you.”

But wait. Why is a chronic-pain podcast covering a movement disease best known for causing hand tremors and an impaired gait? Well, the big news is that doctors are starting to realize that pain and Parkinson’s are often paired together. In fact, some studies show 80 percent of Parkinson’s patients have chronic pain. And many of Tressor’s strategies are worth considering no matter what kind of pain you have.

So back to the ballet master: For 10 years, Tressor ramped up the self-discipline he’d lived by his whole life. He ran daily. He restricted his diet. He lost 25 pounds. He trimmed four inches from his waist. He rescued a puppy, essentially signing himself up for a decade and a half of dog-walking. He made short films to feed his soul. All the while, he continued to teach ballet. But the most profound move of his life didn’t happen on a theater stage. It happened when he drew upon his optimism, self-discipline and in-depth knowledge of the human body to create a health regimen designed to slow down the pace of his disease.

Fast forward to today. Now 58, Tressor lives in a small town in South Carolina, where he still teaches ballet. Amazingly, a decade after The Bad News, he’s got Good News to share: He remains largely asymptomatic! He credits his daily stretching with keeping his pain down to the level of ache and discomfort. And he recently launched an online program called Parkinson’s on the Move to share the exercises, diet, recipes and stress-reduction strategies that have kept him well.

We talked with Tressor about how seeing two chimps on treadmills convinced him of the powerful therapeutic benefit of exercise; why he believes self-discipline, ultimately, will win the game against his medical challenge; and why he thinks everybody should leap at all that life has to offer. (He himself just got engaged!)

Today, Tressor talks about:

• How a misdiagnosis led to surgery on a perfectly healthy shoulder and the painful “nightmare” rehab that followed

• Why he just said no to taking a cocktail of Parkinson’s meds for years—and how he figured out that exercise, diet and stress reduction could keep his symptoms at bay

• How the unplanned adoption of a rescue puppy led to big physical and psychological gains

• Why this ballet master and maker of short films believes that doing anything creative is more therapeutic than any medication

• How to live with Parkinson’s without it dominating you

• Why, if you’re suffering from chronic pain, you shouldn’t put your life on hold

• Why he started Parkinson’s on the Move

• Why, if given the option, he wouldn’t trade in his Parkinson’s diagnosis

Interviewee:

Alexander Tressor is a ballet master and the founder of Parkinson’s on the Move. He has lived with Parkinson’s for 10 years and has kept many debilitating symptoms at bay with daily exercise, diet and stress reduction. Watch him do this 24-minute sample workout to see the kinds of exercises and stretches that keep him fit. He also makes short films infused with his offbeat sense of humor. Check out “Shaken, Not Stirred,” a five-minute documentary about living with Parkinson’s, and “How to Wash a Schnauzer.” And, as promised in the podcast, here is my favorite short of his:

Watch Tressor’s Moving Performance in “Patriotic Parkinson’s Dance”

LET’S GET PHYSICAL: If you need evidence that exercise slows down the pace of Parkinson’s, Alexander Tressor is Exhibit A. (Source: Alexander Tressor)

Straight from the lab:

• This jaw-dropping, three-minute video called “Is Exercise the Answer?” inspired Tressor to start running 20 minutes a day shortly after his diagnosis—and to keep running every day for the next seven years! The clip takes you to a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. There, scientists use two chimpanzees injected with a Parkinson’s-like toxin to test the impact of exercise on Parkinson’s. One chimp, The Runner, walks on a treadmill; the other one, The Watcher, essentially uses the treadmill as a recliner. After three months, brain scans on the primates show that exercise has protected the The Runner’s brain against damage. This footage is excerpted from “My Father, My Brother, and Me,” an hour-long FRONTLINE documentary that appeared on PBS in 2009. The show looked in depth at one family’s battle with Parkinson’s.

• This 2017 systematic review article evaluates 11 studies on the effectiveness of physical activity on depressive symptoms in Parkinson’s. Some 342 patients doing 17 different physical activity programs were included in the research. The authors concluded that physical activity—especially aerobic training—can decrease depression and significantly improve the quality of life for Parkinson’s sufferers.

• This 2012 New England Journal of Medicine article shows that tai chi may improve balance and prevent falls among people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. A group of 195 male and female Parkinson’s sufferers were randomly assigned to work out twice a week doing either tai chi, strength-building exercises or stretching. Half a year later, the tai chi practitioners’ balance was four times better than the stretching group.

• This 2012 Harvard Health Letter stresses that exercise during the early stages of Parkinson’s may slow the pace of the disease and offers six tips for working out to minimize injury and maximize the effectiveness of the exercise.

• This 2011 Neurology journal article by noted Parkinson’s and exercise researcher J. Eric Ahlskog, Ph.D., M.D., concludes that vigorous exercise should have a central place in the treatment of Parkinson’s.

For more information:

The Michael J. Fox Foundation is the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s research in the world. The website offers everything from webinars to podcasts to research updates. The foundation’s online clinical trial matching tool called Fox Trial Finder has helped 30,000 people register for 300 Parkinson’s clinical trials worldwide.

• Professional cyclist and Olympic medalist Davis Phinney started the nonprofit Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s four years after he was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s when he was 40. With the goal of helping people with Parkinson’s live well, the foundation publishes a blog, has a free exercise video you can download, webinars, and 39 free worksheets for tracking such things as your daily exercise and medications, as well as checklists on topics like how to improve your gait, balance and lessen freezing in place.

The National Parkinson Foundation has a toll-free helpline, a blog and podcasts. It also funds the largest clinical research study of Parkinson’s (10,000 patients in four countries), organizes events to raise funds and awareness for Parkinson’s and has free educational materials, such as this page that details the benefits of physical exercise for Parkinson’s patients.

Music:

• Our theme music is “Gentle Storm,” composed and performed by Betsy Tinney (betsytinney.com).

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