VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – It’s no secret that working out regularly can improve your quality of life, but when you are diagnosed with a potentially debilitating disease, the thought of going to the gym can seem daunting. That was the case for Kim Thompson after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease seven years ago.

“I lost my sense of smell years before I had other symptoms. Then I started walking much more slowly, moving more slowly. I was tired all the time, and I didn’t used to be so tired, and I started walking hunched over and shuffling my feet,” said Thompson.

Thompson said she was impressed with how the Parkinson’s community in Virginia Beach supports each other.

“We came to Virginia Beach just for vacation, and we learned that there was an active Parkinson’s community here. Much more active, really, than where we lived in Northern Virginia,” Thompson said.

While on that vacation, Thompson discovered Empowerment Wellness, a gym created specifically for those diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis.

“We want to empower everyone, and motivate, and inspire them,” said Wendy Wilkerson, owner of Empowerment Wellness.

Wilkerson worked with Sentara’s Parkinson’s program for years. She is also certified in Rock Steady Boxing.

“There’s also another program called Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery that focuses on different aspects with Parkinson’s, working on certain movements, trunk rigidity, tremors, and posture,” said Wilkerson.

She says she saw the anxiety of Parkinson’s patients when they walked into a regular gym. So, she opened Empowerment Wellness about 4 1/2 years ago.

“So, for that one hour that they come in, we don’t want them to feel like they have Parkinson’s. We just forget it. Leave it at the door. They come in. They exercise. Hopefully, they feel better when they get out. Also, to feel safe. We want them to have a safe environment to exercise in and also that we understand what they’re feeling, what they’re going through, and we’re here to help them,” said Wilkerson.

Wilkerson said her team sees great results in those who regularly work out at their gym.

“A lot of them have rigidity, which is stiffness. So, we want to make sure that we’re stretching, making bigger movements, a lot of them are small and slower. So, we’re working on focusing on big movements, we’re working on getting faster, and then that’s going to overturn, hopefully, create that neuroplasticity to help them not think about it when they go out. It will just kind of come naturally. It is a movement disorder, so they do need to move. Sitting at home in a chair is not going to help it. It’s only going to make it worse. Medications help with the symptoms. It’s not going to help with overall movement and overall quality of life. So, we want them to be able to go with their grandchildren. We want them to be able to travel. We want them to get up and down from a chair, push or pull open a door. Just simple things that we don’t think about. That’s what we want to help make better for them. I just love the comradery of it, the family atmosphere of it. They take care of each other. They worry about each other.”

Wilkerson said Empowerment Wellness offers a variety of workouts geared specifically for those living with Parkinson’s and MS.

“We have a boxing class that we work on weight shifting, working on hand eye coordination, working on posture. We also have a circuit class where we work on specifics for them. So, whether it be like weight shifting or balance, we incorporate that into a circuit class. We also have somebody who comes in once a week and works on Tai-Chi, so that’s good for stress management, weight shifting. We also do a strength class, just general strengthening, so we want to be able to use push-pull.”

When you walk through the doors of Empowerment Wellness, trainers will do a comprehensive assessment first.

“We put you in the appropriate class. We just want to make sure that you are going to be safe and that you’re comfortable,” said Wilkerson.

Kim Thompson said the safety and comfort of Empowerment Wellness played a role in her decision to call Virginia Beach her permanent home.

“Social skills, and being out with social people, is also a hugely important part of Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s folks have trouble with apathy and social isolation. So, coming here where I combine exercise plus seeing all my friends is huge, and then we have people working here with us who know what Parkinson’s people need to do. So, it’s not just any exercise. It’s what do we do to try to restore our balance? What do we do to make our movements large? To hold my shoulders back? To stand up straight and tall? To not hunch over? That kind of exercise is really important. Almost invariably, I feel much better when I leave than when I come in. We say if you can get here, it’s half the battle. Just walking through that door over there, seeing people we know, I go from being ‘I’m tired. I don’t want to do this.’ I’m kind of apathetic. To being bouncy and happy and feeling strong, and that makes a huge difference. As tired as anyone can be, when you walk in here, after an hour, you feel totally different.”