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Former NBA Player Brian Grant is a Leading Proponent of Exercise for People With Parkinson's Disease

March 7, 2016

Brian Grant was known as one of the toughest players in the NBA during his 12 year career. He made life tough for opponents close to the basket, leaping for rebounds, denying positions, closing up passing lanes, blocking shots.

During the tail end of his career Grant developed a slight tremor in his hand, along with depression. He chalked it up to the realization that his basketball career was basically over and did not pay the tremor any mind.

It turns out that depression is an early sign of Parkinson’s. People may be at increased risk of depression for five or 10 years before the illness,” says Daniel Weintraub, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Parkinson's disease can start in the brainstem and parts of the cortex, areas that are important for mood regulation, which may explain how depression can be an early sign,”

Grant had noticed other signs such as, not being able to jump as high off his left leg and a vague sense of being uncoordinated. This he now pegs to Parkinson's disease. He was finally diagnosed at age 38, two years after his career ended. The series of bad occurrences depression, the tremor, a somewhat early retirement, and a divorce—made Grant wonder, “What's next?

He decided that instead of sitting on the sidelines, he would get back into the game and make himself known. Grant started hearing from others who had the disease. The actor Michael J. Fox, founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, called to discuss what challenges Grant could take on as an advocate. “He said, ‘It's not a death sentence,’” Grant says. “‘You can join the fight and use avenues available to you or keep it to yourself. There's no right or wrong way.’”

The more he studied about the disease, he realized that physical activity is one of the only things that patients can actually control. He decided to check out some of the patient-specific classes and he was very underwhelmed, as the activities included getting up from chairs and changing gait. Grant wanted to give the high functioning patients the workouts they deserve.

He was put in touch with Kimberly Berg, a certified clinical exercise physiologist in Portland, where Grant played during the prime of his NBA career. She took over an exercise class for a group of 20 Parkinson's patients at a private health club. Berg had been working with researchers at OHSU to develop exercise protocols and a series of workout routines for people with Parkinson's disease. The class was a mix of low- and high-functioning people.

Grant had Berg set up stations at a local YMCA for a pilot class that would kick up the intensity even higher than she normally would. It was a great success, and even got Grant to admit he got a great workout in.

Berg signed on as the lead coach of the Brian Grant Foundation and developed the pilot class as a community program called the Powering Forward Boot Camp, which the foundation hopes to offer nationally. The foundation also launched a Powering Forward Wellness Retreat: a nine-hour program of nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, counseling, and community-building events like a wine and cheese hour.

Grant's foundation posts about a dozen exercises on its website that are adaptable to people of varying abilities and available in 10, 15, and 30-minute workouts. In a series of videos, Berg explains each move, demonstrates it, and has someone with the disease perform the workout while Berg provides coaching tips.