Running Around the World With Parkinson's

Bobbie Poledouris, who began running competitively after her diagnosis with Parkinson's disease, runs with two of her grandchildren.

Bobbie Poledouris never thought she would find herself in the condition she’s in today, at age 69.

For three years, this grandmother of four has competed in 5K races throughout Southern California, and has the first place medals on her mantel to prove it.

Equipped with reliable running shoes, she has also hit the pavement in Hawaii, London, Prague, Rome and St. Petersburg, Russia.

For a decade, Poledouris has raced forward while learning to live with Parkinson's disease.

A Healthy Attitude

"When I was diagnosed, I decided then I wasn’t going to let the disease define me," said the athlete. "I knew I couldn’t change the diagnosis, but I could control my attitude toward this progressive disease."

Poledouris’ active lifestyle is what her neurologist Michele Tagliati, MD, believes has helped slow the progression of Parkinson’s and what he encourages his patients to emulate.

"We recommend exercising religiously if the patient is able to," said Tagliati, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Movement Disorders Program. "What Bobbie is doing is remarkable. It's an inspiration to anyone who has this disease and is able to be as active."

Parkinson’s disease progressively affects a person’s ability to control body movements. The four leading signs of the brain disorder are tremors, rigidity, slow movement and instability of posture. Other nonmotor symptoms related to the disease are cognitive impairment, drooling and an increase in blood pressure when a person stands up.

Recognizing the Disorder

Despite a family history of the disease, Poledouris didn’t immediately recognize she had Parkinson’s until she experienced a struggle getting in and out of yoga poses, general stiffness throughout her body and a subtle tremble in her left hand.

"I had been being doing Pilates for 15 years and continued to do it after the diagnosis, but then I would say to myself, ‘What’s the deal here? Am I just getting old?’" Poledouris recalled. "Even though I was active, I still felt overwhelmed by my symptoms and by the prognosis of Parkinson’s disease."

Because Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder, its symptoms tend to become worse over time. Physical therapy experts say exercise is the best medicine for people struggling with symptoms because it helps to regenerate a chemical in the brain that decreases with the disease.

Keep Moving

Bobbie Poledouris

"Patients always ask what they should be doing for Parkinson’s disease, and the research shows any exercise is really beneficial," said Lauren Kaldjian, DPT, NCS, a physical therapist at the Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Neurological Rehabilitation Program.

Kaldjian is one of only about 1,700 specially trained neurologic clinical specialists in the nation, as well as a therapist certified by Parkinson Wellness Recovery. To help slow the disease by improving the patient’s function and mobility, Kaldjian’s customized therapy sessions are task-specific.

"It is extremely important patients receive evidence-based, high-quality care from specialists — like the ones we have here at Cedars-Sinai — who are familiar with their disease and who have experience working with other patients who have Parkinson’s," Kaldjian said.

"I encourage people to do what they like to do. If they like using the upright bike at the gym, then they should do that, or boxing or dancing. The point is to do the exercise you love to do — keep moving," she continued.

Running with Parkinson’s

For Poledouris, taking her dog, Lucy, for daily walks sparked her desire to run. Two-minute intervals with the dog turned into 1-mile runs. When that wasn’t enough, Poledouris would drop off the exhausted mixed terrier at the house and take on a second mile.

Physically, running keeps Poledouris slim, helps her sleep better and helps with her digestion. Mentally, it has allowed her to meet new challenges with confidence and to stick to difficult tasks without quitting. She’s now more disciplined and able to spend more time with her grandchildren, and has even put together furniture and toys.

"I never thought I would ever be able to run with the grandkids because of the disease, but now they run with me on the beach all the time," Poledouris said.

She admitted, though, that running is tough. The first mile feels awful, and the next two aren’t much better, she said. "But I force a smile, which actually helps tap into my newly discovered competitive streak to keep me going."

It's All About Timing

Poledouris took up her first 5K race in the spring of 2013, and she averages about six races a year. She has won first place for her age group in 18 of her past 23 races.

Her best time: 26 minutes, 48 seconds.

"I definitely would not have done this if it were not for Parkinson’s disease," Poledouris said. "Running has mentally allowed me to get through the disease, and I’m motived by its benefits and the attention from friends, family and, of course, Dr. Tagliati."

A runner himself, Tagliati knows how much time, consistency and dedication is needed to compete in this sport. He is also impressed to see how well Poledouris has embraced the diagnosis.

"I love that she is so active, and I cannot wait to run alongside her in a race," he said. "That would be wonderful."