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Fencing keeps Parkinson's patient on guard

Deb Bergstrom started fencing after her daughter became interested in the sport several years ago. When her daughter left home for college, Bergstrom continued in the sport she describes as "physical chess."

"It's a lot of fun," she said. "I'm going to keep doing it as long as I can."

For Bergstrom, the sport is not only enjoyable, it's a means to stay active and heighten her muscle coordination, balance and agility — all important considerations for someone who has Parkinson's disease.

Bergstrom, who was diagnosed in 2008, gave a demonstration of the sport on April 21 at Baltimore Fencing Center in Timonium in support ofParkinson'sAwareness Month.

A degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, Parkinson'sdisease slowly robs individuals of movement.

There is no cure. And while there are medicines that help the disease's symptoms, exercise is important, too, according to Dr. Stephen Grill, of theParkinson'sand Movement Disorders Center of Maryland, in Howard County.

Grill attended the Timonium event on Saturday, and said fencing and some other activities, such as yoga and tai chi, lend themselves to the types of movement that can be beneficial to Parkinson's patients.

"Essentially, any form of exercise is great for Parkinson's," Grill said after the event.

"Fencing, in particular, challenges through walking a very specific way, lunges, posture, the movements you have to make — it is a terrific type of exercise for people with Parkinson's," he said.

Parkinson's disease commonly affects people 65 and older. Bergstrom was 51 when she was diagnosed. Exercise is even more important when diagnosed young, she said, as people often still have to work, raise families or take care of elderly parents.

"The young onset category is going to have it for a long time," Bergstrom said of the disease. "It is more of a challenge to stay fit. Exercise is extremely important."

When Bergstrom was first diagnosed with Parkinson's, she feared she would have to give up fencing. With Grill's encouragement, she continued. She has also received support from Bin Lu, owner and founder of the Baltimore Fencing Center, located off West Aylesbury Road.

"It helps a lot," Bergstrom said, of fencing. "It's good for speed, coordination, balance, stride and reaction time."

She said in addition to the physical attributes for Parkinson's patients, fencing can help sharpen thinking skills as well.

"Many people don't know that Parkinson's has some cognitive symptoms, too," Bergstrom said. "Fencing is a strategic game. You have to think about what to do."

Saturday's "Get the Point" Parkinson's fencing demonstration was held to bring more awareness to the disease and to introduce the sport to people who may be facing Parkinson's diagnosis, or have family members who could benefit from fencing as a movement exercise.

Bergstrom demonstrated movements and quick reactions that are needed to perform, and Grill and others spoke about the benefits.

The event was one of dozens of educational sessions across the county to mark Parkinson's Awareness Month, which has been celebrated in April.

Leonard Schwartz, assistant state director for Parkinson's Action Network and an Owings Mill resident, attended the event and presented Lu with a proclamation from Gov.Martin O'Malley recognizing the club's help for Parkinson's patients.

"It was kind of neat," said Schwartz of the demonstrations. "Deb did the fencing and then everybody did, including the doctors."

Schwartz was impressed not only with the prospects for fencing as a physical aid to help Parkinson's patients, but also with Bergstrom's message.

"The bottom line is not what you can't do, but what you can do — (that) was Deb's point," Schwartz said. "Fencing is something she can do and likes. Find things you like and can continue to do ... that can get you motivated."

Fencing does keep Bergstrom motivated, and she has no plans to retire her foil any time soon.

"I'll never be any good at it (competitively) because I'm older and have Parkinson's disease," Bergstrom said of fencing. "When I start falling down and can't stay stable on the strip, I will consider hanging up my mask and foil.

"There were a few times during my treatment I thought I would have to call it quits, (but) I'm still doing it."

For more information about Parkinson's disease and local resources, go to http://www.parkinsonsaction.org. For information about the Baltimore Fencing Center in Timonium, go to http://www.baltimorefencing.com or call 410-560-7988.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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