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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Pedaling for Parkinson's: Finding Comfort in Community

Pedaling for Parkinson's: Finding Comfort in Community

There is something special happening inside Studio 2 at Westminster’s City Park Fitness Center. If you pass by on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, you will see up to 20 people taking part in what may look like your average cycling class. However, what’s happening inside this fitness studio is much more than just exercise. 

“I am so motivated by their positivity,” said fitness instructor Sunny Benedetti. “Sometimes they come in and they say it’s been a rough morning, their medication isn’t working, they hardly slept, and they still come in and give it 100 percent.” 

The participants in this cycling class are different ages, come from different backgrounds, and live different lifestyles, but they are all bonded together by one commonality. 

Westminster resident Carmen Latimer participates in Pedaling for Parkinson's“I was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2012,” Carmen Latimer remembered. “After that, I was still in denial. I couldn’t really accept it for about three years. Then I realized exercise was really important, and it motivated me to exercise as much as I could to keep [the Parkinson’s] from progressing.” 

The Pedaling for Parkinson’s class is a place where Latimer and other Westminster residents who are battling the same neurodegenerative disorder cycle together with the goal of improving their mental and physical health and slowing the signs of Parkinson’s, which vary from tremors and muscular rigidity to slow and imprecise movement. 

“Riding at a set speed, three times a week can reduce their symptoms by up to 35 percent,” explained Recreation Coordinator Becky Stafford. During each class, participants pedal away with the goal of riding between 70 and 90 repetitions per minute. 

“For me, riding my bike, I forget I have Parkinson’s,” said program participant Steve Sterkel, who was diagnosed in 2014. “When I’m on my bike, I don’t think that I’m living with Parkinson’s, so it’s really crucial for me and has really made a difference in my life.” The Westminster resident says he’s attended every class since the very beginning. Program participants Carmen Latimer and Steve Sterkel participate in Pedaling for Parkinson's with instructor Sunny Benedetti.

Another key aspect of Pedaling for Parkinson’s is strengthening cognitive ability through mental games. “They will go around the room and everyone has to say the name of a state alphabetically, for example,” Stafford said. “Things like this that can help improve their cognitive skills are very important as well.” 

Stafford, who helped start the program at City Park Fitness Center, understands the disease on a personal level. “My dad actually has Parkinson’s,” said Stafford. “I had learned a little bit about the program through my dad attending a similar class at a private health club in Boulder. It just so happened that Sunny [Benedetti] came up to me one day and mentioned something about the program as well, so we got Sunny trained and once we had the room available, we started it!” 

The first class was held in October 2018 with a small handful of participants. It did not take long for word to spread fast, and soon after, nearly 20 people started attending regularly. Despite a pause on the program in 2020 due to COVID-19, the program quickly picked up a year later and has been going strong under the direction of Stafford and Benedetti, who has taught every class from the beginning. 

Fitness instructor Sunny Benedetti teaches participants in the Pedaling for Parkinson's class“It caught my attention and my heart,” Benedetti remarked. “There’s no rhyme or reason why someone gets Parkinson’s. It could be me. It could be you. It could be our friends or neighbors.” 

The cause of the disease is unknown and although there’s no cure yet, this group finds comfort in community.   

“This program means continuing a life of grace, movement, and compassion for one another,” said Sterkel. “I know what these people are going through. Just to get here is a major ordeal, getting dressed, getting everything together to get to class. I see each one of them making the effort, and that encourages me.” 

This is a sentiment shared by many others in the class as well. 

“It can be really isolating,” Latimer said. “So, the great thing about the class is to be with people that have the same issue, and you don’t have to be embarrassed, and you can talk about medications and problems. It’s great to have other people that are in the same boat. It’s so much emotional support for me. We were looking at moving, but now I don’t think I want to move away because I don’t want to lose the group. That’s how important this is to me.” Cookie Clark, wife of a program participant, sets up an Easter party for the group to enjoy.

While Latimer has a desire to stay in Westminster to take advantage of the program, similarly, other participants moved to our area specifically for the program. Walter and Cookie Clark lived in Denver before finally making the move up north to make it easier to access the program three days a week. Walter is not only battling Parkinson’s, but also dementia. 

“I truthfully don’t know where I’d be without this class,” said Walter’s wife, Cookie Clark. I’m his caregiver, it’s 24/7, but when he comes to cycle Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I have a better day, because he has a better day.”  

Clark shows daily support for her husband and the other program participants. She hosts frequent celebrations outside the studio, complete with a full spread of food and drinks to help encourage the group.  

“I decided I am going to give them a birthday party when it’s their birthday. I want them to think about the day they didn’t have Parkinson’s and let’s celebrate your one day.” 

Clark says she continues to see improvements in her husband’s symptoms as he attends the program, something staff notice in all of the participants. 

Recreation Coordinator Becky Stafford helped start Westminster's Pedaling for Parkinson's program“We can see it in the way that they’re walking in,” Stafford mentioned. “If they weren’t riding, a lot of them would be using canes or walkers, so we see their positive progression. I’ve seen postural improvement with several of them, their general [walking] has improved, and their mood.”  

Although recreation center staff knew there was a need for this program, no one could have guessed the impact it would have nearly four years later. 

 “I think this type of program allows me to step back and say ‘this is why I do what I do,” Stafford said. “I see what this group has created, and they’re a family. That’s what we strive to do in recreation, is create this. This program is just unique, they’ve taken it to a whole new level. This is totally my why.”  

Pedaling for Parkinson’s is held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10-11 a.m. at City Park Fitness Center. Registration is not necessary, and there is no additional cost to attend. Participants can pay the drop-in fee, use a recreation center pass, or a SilverSneakers membership. For more information on fees, visit our website: www.cityofwestminster.us/ParksRecreation

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