Stay Fit Program Goes Virtual

By Caitlin Burns | December 2, 2020

After temporarily closing down last spring, the Dan Aaron Stay Fit Program for people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson’s disease reopened this summer in a virtual environment. 

Doctor of Physical Therapy students are getting back their hands-on experience in the program. On Nov. 5, 15 Physical Therapy students started assisting with the telehealth exercise program by observing patient movements, evaluating patient needs, and leading exercise sessions.

“With the lack of mobility, patients were losing ground,” said Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy and Director of the Stay Fit Program Dr. Janet Readinger, who said that due to staying in patients were feeling like they were losing mobility to their degenerative diseases. “Students are rotating in groups of two, taking turns working with patients and ensuring patients are exercising safely.”

Doctor of Physical Therapy student Gregory Baumstein ’22 is one of the students assisting with the virtual programming. Last year, he assisted while the program was in-person and has helped patients take on this new online environment.

“I think one of the probably biggest things that I’ve learned is that participants have very similar stories to us and they want to do a lot of the same things that we do, even just interacting with friends and family,” said Baumstein. “Even though it might seem like a small amount of exercise to someone younger or who maybe doesn’t have Parkinson’s or MS, what we are doing is very beneficial and challenging to participants, which is what we want.”

Through Zoom, the 36 people with MS and Parkinson’s disease can participate in strengthening exercises facilitated by the Arcadia University Department of Physical Therapy students and faculty. Dr. Readinger said that while some modifications were needed for patients to be safe at home working out, it’s so far been successful.

“They missed seeing each other and seeing us,” said Dr. Readinger. “We’ve taken some safety precautions, including mostly seated exercises. We also ask that someone is home with them and that we have their cell phone number.”

Baumstein said that the experience this year of assisting with the Dan Aaron Stay Fit Program has provided an opportunity to learn about telehealth techniques and practices. While some of the clinical rotations he’s done have included telehealth, he noted that the program being completely online, while being challenging, has also inspired creativity.

“ I think this is teaching us a little bit more about telehealth—about what works and what doesn’t work,” said Baumstein. “It always goes back to patient safety. For both us and participants, it’s a great experience to learn how to interact with patients, but also how to create exercises that work over Zoom.”

Dr. Readinger said that the four classes held each Tuesday and Thursday are limited to eight or nine participants so students and faculty observing can see everyone at one time. Additionally, they’ve limited exercises to seated mobility, with the option to use weights that participants already have at home. Dr. Readinger said that in the next couple weeks she hopes to mail Therabands, exercise bands that participants use to create controlled resistance during exercise.

In addition to the online exercise program, the Dan Aaron Stay Fit program also hosts support group meetings for caregivers. In September, this group started up again online for weekly meetings facilitated by Dr. Karen Sawyer, assistant professor of Physical Therapy.

“After six months, they really missed the support groups,” said Dr. Readinger about the suspension of the support group from March through August. The group has now moved to twice a month meetings instead of weekly. “The caregivers were stressed beyond belief. They were struggling with feelings of isolation with the pandemic and their participants losing ground with mobility.”

Dr. Readinger sees value in the Zoom exercise programs, and anticipates keeping them going after in-person programs resume at the new location in Oak Summit. For participants who live far away or have transportation issues, the online program enables them to stay active and stay mobile longer.

The program, founded by Gerri Aaron ’14H and her family in 2004, has supported patients and caregivers with an intensive exercise program that provides a safe environment to maintain and improve their endurance and mobility. Supported by the Parkinson’s Council, grants have enabled the development of exercise programs, caregiver support groups, and hands-on student experiences that benefit local patients.