UD alum Jodi Cianci is partnering with Chris Knight to fight the effects of Parkinson's disease through exercise.

Every movement matters

UD professor, alum team up to fight Parkinson's effects through exercise

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1:03 p.m., April 1, 2014--Jodi Cianci knows how easy it would be to just sit back and let others do everything for her. 

But she also knows that would be the beginning of a slow death.

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Cianci, who earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Delaware in 1988, learned she had Parkinson’s disease four years ago at the age of 49.

She admits that when the diagnosis was first confirmed, she was despondent. “I thought my life was over,” she says. “But now I understand that it’s not the worst thing that can happen.”

Exercise has helped Cianci emerge from the “dark hole” in which she initially found herself, and she and her husband have started a foundation to promote the message that every movement matters.

The foundation, Shake It Off Inc., raises funds to support research on Parkinson’s, and Cianci has brought some of that money home to UD by donating to the laboratory of Chris Knight, associate professor, in the Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology.

Knight’s research focuses on understanding how the nervous system controls movement, and he is conducting experiments to help guide exercise recommendations for older adults and people with Parkinson’s disease.

Before her diagnosis, Cianci was a self-professed quick exerciser. “I was in and out of the gym with no sweat,” she says. But her husband, Chris, is an avid cyclist, and he was determined to help Jodi find non-medical ways to deal with the effects of Parkinson’s.

So when the couple learned about research on biking and the brain by neuroscientist Jay Alberts at the Cleveland Clinic, they traveled there to learn more about how pedaling might diminish some of the symptoms of the disease. Alberts and his team had demonstrated a 35 percent reduction in Parkinson’s disease symptoms by the simple act of cycling at 80 to 90 rpms for 45 minutes three times a week. 

The Ciancis were sold on the idea, and Jodi began doing her own version of the program by taking spinning classes three times a week.

According to her husband, the results thus far have been remarkable. 

“After only six weeks of cycling, I noticed a return in her fine motor skills,” he says. “She was able to use her right hand again, and her once-small handwriting looked as legible as it did 20 years ago. We both feel like we have objective evidence that this approach is working for her.”

Jodi Cianci is determined not only to reap the benefits of exercise herself but also to get the word out to others. “I think you have to take a holistic approach to dealing with this disease,” she says. “I’m not in denial — I just refuse to give the diagnosis power over me.”

She is now partnering with Knight at UD to help those with Parkinson’s live better lives through exercise until a cure is found.

“Jodi had to fight to discover this approach for herself,” Knight says. “Now, I’m doing the science, and through her organization she’s helping others avoid going through what she went through to get answers. For me, this partnership is important because it’s enabling me to be more actively involved in delivering the results of my research to people with Parkinson’s.”

Shake It Off’s upcoming events include the Philly Rabbit Run 5K Run/Walk on Saturday, April 19, at the Philadelphia Zoo.

“The more money we can raise through events like this, the more we can give to people like Chris for their research,” Cianci says.

To learn more about Shake It Off or to register for the 5K, visit the website.

For more information about participating in the research project “Exercise to improve quickness and mobility in people with Parkinson’s disease,” contact Knight at caknight@udel.edu or visit the website.

To learn more about other research and clinical resources at the University of Delaware, including The Parkinson’s Clinic, read the related story here.

Article by Diane Kukich

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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