Parkinson’s and Adaptive Climbing in the Climbing Gym | Part 1

Over the last five years, I have had the honor of teaching a growing group of individuals here at Sportrock and actually creating my dream job in the process. Each week these climbers come into the rock climbing gym, gear up in their harnesses and shoes, and climb for upwards of an hour. Besides being climbers, these individuals have a couple of things in common: They are inspiring. They are passionate about their sport. They are incredibly supportive of one another.  And they have Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

Climbing helps climbers with Parkinson’s improve balance, strength, and most of all, confidence!

Five years ago, in October of 2012, I met Jon Lessin.  Jon is an accomplished Doctor, published author, father, husband, cyclist, yogi, jokester, and now, addicted climber.  Jon also has Parkinsons Disease.  When Jon started taking lessons with me, I knew very little about PD other than a couple of generalized symptoms.  Working with Jon was a huge learning experience and he seemed eager to answer every little question I asked.  He has a remarkably positive attitude and a great sense of humor, never hesitant to make fun of me or laugh at himself.  I admire his determination as he fights his way up a new climb, sometimes staying on one move for nearly 30 minutes, refusing to quit and seeing his face when he finally does the move.  “Tenacious” was what a Sportrock spectator once called Jon, and actually became the inspiration for his book, “Tenacity”, which he later published!

Jon is one of fourteen individuals with PD to join in the fun at Sportrock over the last four years.  One of fourteen people I feel deeply connected with and enjoy watching improve from week to week. As the group continues to grow, so does our outreach and desire to learn.  Sportrock has partnered with Parkinson’s Foundation National Capital Area and George Washington University to host a study on the effects of rock climbing on PD, which has not yet been studied and has exciting potential.  Rock climbing primarily helps to improve the flexibility, strength, and balance of individuals with PD and this has becoming increasingly apparent as I have watched these climbers grow over the years.

The Parkinson’s group meets every Friday morning in Sportrock Alexandria.

Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerative disease which affects levels of dopamine in the brain.  The physical symptoms are widely varied from person to person and can be effectively combatted by medication, but one thing is universal: PD is a disease of movement.  Some of the physical symptoms are slow movements, dyskinesia, balance problems, weight shifting, hand eye coordination, difficulty with big movements, and tremors.  According to Lisa Ebb, a movement disorder Physical Therapist who has joined in climbing with a couple of the climbers with PD, “Challenge and variation are the two most important principles of exercise in Parkinson’s Disease”.   Given these common symptoms and the important principles of exercise, it is no surprise how effective rock climbing has been on the lives of people with PD.

Please join me as I help spread the word of what a powerful impact climbing has on people with Parkinson’s!  

4 Comments

  • Gary Boyd Posted February 27, 2018 11:42 pm

    Hi,

    I wanted to tweet your article. I have YOPD and it’s inspiring to know others out there with mobility issues are really doing this. I used to be a pretty average climber. 5.12 was the highest I ever climbed. Now, I’ve gained a lot of weight and all I want is to climb again. I don’t care if I can’t do a route. I’m just scared. I walk with a cane because of balance issues. I remember my last day in the climbing gym as a very sad day. I’ve been thinking about going back for awhile, This may just be the inspiration I need.

    Thanks,
    Gary

    • Gray O Posted March 1, 2018 12:12 pm

      Hi Gary! Thank you so much for your comment. I have talked with our Director of Events and Programs, Molly and we’d really like to get you in here and back on the wall. If you’d like to share the article on Twitter, please select the “share article” icon and then select the twitter icon. This should open a new window that’s prepared to share the article on Twitter!

  • Ed Swanson Posted May 21, 2018 12:48 pm

    I was told that people with Parkinson’s should not be climbing anything. Ropes, rocks, stairs, whatever. I was advised against this. But I am interested in your results since this was published and hopefully it will help change or ease my mind.

    • Gray O Posted May 22, 2018 2:40 pm

      Hi Ed! Thank you for commenting. Please see our Director of Events and Programs and founder of our Parkinson’s Climbing Group, Molly Donelan’s response below. Please feel free to email her at [email protected] with further questions!

      “Thank you for your inquiry. I do hear often from individuals in the PD community that Rock Climbing sounds like a crazy idea for them, but rest assured that it is very beneficial. All climbers are attached to a rope so any falls while climbing would not result in a ground fall. We take other precautions as well, depending on the individual and their needs. We have had several doctors, physical therapist, and researchers come in an observe climbing and all agree it is beneficial. Please let me know if you have any additional questions. I am happy to chat over the phone if that is easier.”

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Year you started climbing?
2010

Year you started working at Sportrock?
2014

Favorite climbing spot?
New River Gorge, WV

Most memorable climbing experience?
Splurging on a cabin at the New and getting to soak in a hot tub every night after climbing. Not so much the having to sleep on the couch after.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee?
Summer Camp instructor, Belay instructor, Front Desk staff, Marketing Manager, Brand Manager.

Passions in life?
My family, all animals (especially my two cats), design, and popcorn.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words?
Creative, loud, and obsessed-with-animals.

What would surprise us to learn about you?
Surprisingly, there are still people at Sportrock who don’t know I have an identical twin sister...even though we climb together. Also that I’m originally from California and married to my high school sweetheart.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why?
Definitely a cat. I love naps in warm, cozy places.

Lillian Chao-Quinlan
Lillian Chao-Quinlan

President

Year you started climbing? 1999

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2000

Favorite climbing spot? Kalymnos, Greece.

Most memorable climbing experience? Too many and all memorable for different reasons - sending a hard climb, being in a beautiful place, climbing with my husband and friends...

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Instructor, Investor, President.

Passions in life? Creating opportunities in the climbing community that support people in discovering their potential!

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Passionate, driven, reliable.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I LOVE M&Ms (dark chocolate specifically!).

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Grizzly bear because I love the great outdoors, eating fish and scaring campers!

Andrew Kozak
Andrew Kozak

Senior Director | Director of SR Sterling

Year you started climbing? 1999

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2002

Favorite climbing spot? Red Rocks, NV.

Most memorable climbing experience? The Great Arch in Stone Mountain, NC.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? I’ve done them all.

Passions in life? Family.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Caring, Committed, Clean.

What would surprise us to learn about you? On hard, crimpy boulder problems, I only climb with 9 fingers.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A pet panda for my daughter because she LOVES them.

Sean Taft-Morales
Sean Taft-Morales

Director of SR Alexandria & Outdoor Programs

Year you started climbing? 2001

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2010

Favorite climbing spot? Yosemite in early spring.

Most memorable climbing experience? One of my most memorable moments came at the end of the first day of my first big-wall climb. I was hating life, had been belaying on a 6 inch ledge for hours, was cold, hungry, and had forgotten my headlamp in the bottom of the haul bag. I was just about ready to give up on climbing forever when the sun started to set, and a cloud of a thousand swifts started feeding all around me. Climbing to me is all about stepping back to find beauty in these extreme environments and experiences. You have to get out of your head and recognize that it's a pretty cool planet.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Outdoor guide, Desk staff, Closing manager, Basic Skills instructor, Camp Director, Director of Alexandria, Director of Outdoor Programs.

Passions in life? Aside from climbing, I love baking bread, sailing, and playing dungeons and dragons.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Evidence-based, Glittery, Color-coordinated.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I once hitchhiked over 2,000 miles in 8 months around the southwest US climbing. I also started climbing after attending a Sportrock birthday party.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? I would be a blue whale - it's the most alien landscape and fundamentally different experience I could imagine.

James Anastasion
James Anastasion

Director of Membership

Year you started climbing? 1994

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2003

Favorite climbing spot? Chattanooga, TN.

Most memorable climbing experience? Leading my wife up Old Ladies at Seneca Rocks to propose on the south summit.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? I started as a routesetter and continued with that part-time through most of my Sportrock career. I was also the SR Rockville Gym Director, Operations Director, Instructor, IT Department, Cleaner, Builder, Repairman, Purchaser, Installer, etc. And I continue to do many of these roles while also working as the Director of Membership.

Passions in life? My family is always at the top of my list. A recent and strong passion of mine though has become obstacle course racing. If I'm not spending time on either of those things, then you will probably find me in the shop fixing or building something.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Sarcastic (from my wife), Strong (from my daughter), Blank stare (from my son).

What would surprise us to learn about you? I can add poop and fart lyrics to most Disney tunes, especially Frozen and Descendants. If you want to get your daughter laughing, just sing “let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore.”

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Okapi. It is rarely seen and rarely heard of. However, when it finally comes to light you can only think that Prometheus’s children got a hold of the clay one day.

Molly Donelan

Director of Programs & Events

Year you started climbing? 2004

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2007

Favorite climbing spot? Echo Cliffs or Red River Gorge.

Most memorable climbing experience? Deep water soloing in Mallorca, Spain.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Yoga Instructor, Climbing Instructor, Front Desk Staff, Outdoor Instructor, Lead Manager, Assistant Director, Director of Alexandria, Director of Programs & Events.

Passions in life? My family, jigsaw puzzles, my dogs, camping, climbing, running, baking, neurobiology, and eating.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Passionate, Crazy, Independent.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I used to run my own catering baking business, DC Treats, which served to over 15 bars/restaurants in the DC area, including Good Stuff Eatery and Sticky Rice.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? An elephant because they are strong, intelligent, loyal to the group, and unstoppable.

Leah Thomas
Leah Thomas

Assistant Director of SR Alexandria

Year you started climbing? 2010

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2010

Favorite climbing spot? Red River Gorge and Reeds Creek.

Most memorable climbing experience? The Red River Gorge was my first outdoor trip ever. I knew nothing and went with experts! It was my first lead belay and the first time I cleaned a route. I fell in love. And the experience reminded me that I was improving, growing, and getting over my fear of heights every day.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Birthday Party Instructor, Front Desk Staff, Front Desk Manager, Instructor, Retail Manager, Assistant Director of Alexandria.

Passions in life? My passion in life is helping others work for and achieve goals. Every personality test I’ve taken led me to the same common theme: helping, teaching, and motivating others. Currently, I want to share the love of climbing with those who may not have the opportunity to do so and introduce a new mental and physical challenge into their lives.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Loyal, Enthusiastic, Supportive.

What would surprise us to learn about you? Other than being absolutely afraid of heights...I love love love the sound of lawnmowers because it reminds me of warmer weather and free time. It's the sound of summer! I played soccer since I was 2 years old, was a Middle School PE teacher, and completed a 500 mile hike. I also lived in Istanbul, Turkey for six months and scored free tea and coffee almost daily for three of them!

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Golden Retriever - The extroverted, loyal cuddler that loves to play and meet new people. They are energetic, active, and they love and want to play with everyone. They also like meeting new people, going on long hikes and adventures, and sharing hugs and treats.

Gray O'Reilly
Gray O'Reilly

Marketing Manager

Year you started climbing? 2012

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2014

Favorite climbing spot? Leavenworth, WA.

Most memorable climbing experience? Freezing temps. 50-degree sleeping bags. Car stuck in the mud. Unable to start a fire. Finally start a fire. Snow. Fire goes out. Car still stuck in mud. Start another fire. Survive the night on body heat and sheer force of will. Climb at Endless Wall the next day!

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Belay bot for parties and open climb; Summer Camp instructor; Private Lesson instructor; Head Camp Coordinator; Marketing Manager.

Passions in life? School is and always will be one of my great passions. If I could professionally collect degrees in various fields, I would. Also, publishing a novel is a lifelong dream of mine. So I would say, besides climbing: learning, writing, music, environmentalism...and climbing.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Follows directions.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I was NOT in a fraternity in college. But I was in an all-male acapella group.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Humpback Whale. No natural predators, meals swim into my mouth, and people travel from around the world to watch me belly flop? Yes, please.

Jeremy Hardin
Jeremy Hardin

Senior Director | Director of Routesetting (L5)

Year you started climbing? 2002

Year you started setting? 2004

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2002

How many comps have you set for? 100+ including multiple World Cup and National Championships.

What is your goal when setting? For gym setting, I try to make every climb consistent in grade, with respect to height and reach, with flow and memorable sequences or movement. For comp setting, the goal is to create fun and fair routes or problems to separate the field of competitors. We try to test all abilities and styles for the overall "best" climber of the event.

How do you come up with route names? That's the hardest part of my day. Normally it comes down to the first two words I can rhyme that are appropriate.

Favorite route name? One Crazy Hooker.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? My reputation.

Setting pet peeves? When climbers do a sequence or move incorrectly or harder than what is obvious and then complain the movement was "awkward"... sometimes it's not the climb that’s awkward, it's the climber.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Try harder.

Passions in life? My wife and son, cars and trucks, fixing stuff.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? He’s a Workhorse.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I train and compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A Lion, because he’s the king of the jungle!

Stephen Meinhold
Stephen Meinhold

Head Routesetter (L4)

Year you started climbing? 1996

Year you started setting? 2001

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2017

How many comps have you set for? 32

Why did you start setting? Early on I was more focused on competing than setting. I competed in ABS & USA Climbing National events, UBC Pro Tour events, Mammut Bouldering Championships, Dark Horse Series, Portland Boulder Rally, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, and even an Ice Climbing comp. I thought comps started to neglect the competitor for "world cup" style problems so I started to focus on setting to better understand this style. I have been head setter for a few different gyms in NC, PA, and OR over the years, and I have set multiple USA Climbing National events.

What is your goal when setting? To force you to do whatever I want you to do.

How do you come up with route names? I stare at the computer screen and mumble until I come up with something.

Favorite route name? Manilla Vanure.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? Coffee and pastries.

Setting pet peeves? Metric bolts.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Seek out beta or work it out with a friend. Sometimes I can set very contrived with a specific sequence, so if you can't figure it out maybe someone else can. Just like outside, learning how to project routes can help with the redpoint process. More pull-ups always help.

Passions in life? My wife and baby boy... and cookies, all of them.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Slow-motion Train Wreck.

What would surprise us to learn about you? Before getting back in the gym I was a High School Chemistry/Physics/Math teacher. I have horrible balance. I am a huge fan of rap and hip-hop.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Gorilla, it’s my spirit animal.

JD Cantrell
JD Cantrell

Routesetter (L2)

Year you started climbing? 2005

Year you started setting? 2009

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2012

How many comps have you set for? Dozens.

Why did you start setting? I would skip class to go climb at Virginia Beach Rock Gym while my friends, Scott Johns and Tommy Morrison, were setting and they kind of took me under their wing.

What is your goal when setting? To force the movement, duh...

How do you come up with route names? I keep an ongoing list in my phone of things and phrases that I think would make good route names. There’s lots of pop culture references.

Favorite route name? All my favorite route names are NSFW.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? The bills don't pay themselves.

Setting pet peeves? Not having enough coffee.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Trade beta for baked goods.

Passions in life? Rock climbing, yoga, art, building things.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Doesn't follow instructions well.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I’m a bit of a neat freak.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A pug, everybody likes pugs.

FOR THE MONTH OF DECEMBER, RECEIVE A FREE $10 GIFT CARD FOR EVERY $50 IN GIFT CARDS YOU PURCHASE
+ +