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

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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!  

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Showing 4 comments
  • Gary Boyd


    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.


    • Gray O

      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

    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

      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.”

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