Slowing the Parkinson’s Progression with CrossFit

December 5, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Veronica Romero
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Veronica Romero, the owner of CrossFit Warehouse in Alsip, IL, is used to training all sorts of athletes. Owning the affiliate since 2018, Romero ran teen and traditional CrossFit classes until recently, when something pushed her to expand her offerings. 

  • “My mom, Minerva (aka Minnie), was diagnosed in August 2018 with Parkinson’s disease,” Romero says. “Her doctor told us that there is no cure for it, and the only thing they can recommend is exercise. The more, the better, but there was at least a minimum requirement of exercise to make a difference in slowing the progression.”

Parkinson’s occurs when brain cells that make dopamine, a chemical that coordinates movement, stop working or die. The neurodegenerative disorder can cause tremors, stiffness, and balance problems. There can also be non-movement symptoms that are part of Parkinson’s, and everyone living with the disease has a unique experience and a different course. It is a lifelong, progressive disease.

It is estimated that Parkinson’s affects nearly 1 million people in the United States and more than 6 million people worldwide. Parkinson’s is described in levels: Level 1 patients have the least symptoms, and it goes up to Level 5.

The diagnosis was difficult to hear for Romero and her mother.

  • “She took it hard when she got the diagnosis,” Romero remembers. “I don’t think she was clinically diagnosed as depressed, but she was definitely depressed. She was extremely emotional.”

When she heard that exercise could make an impact, the reaction changed, according to Romero.

  • “I think she was hopeful to hear those words. I know that there’s an inevitable with this disease, but it’s in her hands to a certain extent how it progresses. Before that news, she kind of just surrendered to Parkinson’s, like she put up the white flag and was like, ‘This is it. It’s over, I’m done.’ And it was really sad to watch.” 

Romero began helping her mother focus on fitness.

  • “I had to be proactive. Exercise wasn’t part of her everyday life like it is for myself, my son, and all of us who are part of the gym community,” Romero says. “I know what it does for people. I see firsthand every day what it does for people’s mood, confidence, and overall health. So I’m like, ‘Okay, Mom, you got this diagnosis, but we can do something about it for now.’”

At first, Minnie joined a small local gym where she was exercising with other Parkinson’s patients. This was soon after her diagnosis as a Level 1 patient. However, Romero quickly realized that she could serve her mother better in her own space at CrossFit Warehouse. 

What made her finally pull the trigger was something specific. 

  • “I pulled her out because she was surrounded by a lot of Level 3 and Level 4 patients, and my Mom was still Level 1. But I started to see my Mom behave like the Level 4 patients in the class,” Romero says.
  • “She started to shuffle her feet and move slower in class, like the other patients. I remember I told my husband, ‘I’ve got to get her out of here.’”

Romero decided to create a class for Seniors at her affiliate, where her mother could exercise but not necessarily be surrounded by an entire class of Parkinson’s patients. It would be a place where Romero could personally oversee her programming, and she hoped that the other members’ health would help impact Minnie positively.

  • “As soon as we launched the program, I pulled her out of the other facility. I said, ‘You’re coming here, and I will be in control of this. We are going to make sure that you move correctly and get all the help that you need to help slow the progression down.’”

The results have been remarkable.

  • “My Mom recently had her big check-up with her doctor after exercising for about four months,” Romero says. “The doctor said she is doing phenomenal, and if she keeps up what she is doing, she could stay at this level of Parkinson’s for possibly five more years.”

Both women were ecstatic. 

Photo Credit: Veronica Romero

After seeing such a visible result from fitness, Romero decided to raise money to help fight Parkinson’s. One day, when she was in the middle of Murph training, she decided to do the Chicago Marathon wearing a vest. She threw in burpees at each mile marker for good measure.

She did it all to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the primary nonprofit to educate people about and fight Parkinson’s.

Romero reflects on the lofty goal she set.

  • “We started training, and it got real, real quick. It felt awful, and I questioned what I was doing, but I knew it was for my mom. It was for a reason that was bigger than me.”

Four other people ran the Marathon with Romero, including her son Julian, and Minnie was there every step of the way, lending support.

  • “She was so excited. I took her to the pre-race dinner hosted by Team Fox, and my entire family came out to cheer us on,” Romero says. “Mom was at mile 20 on the course screaming and cheering.” 

Romero paused and got emotional.

“I am so happy I could do something to help my Mom. I feel absolutely blessed to provide that help for her.”

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