A lot of men might spend three days a week pumping iron or shooting hoops at the , but you'll find Doug Manuel and his buddies playing pickleball.
"It's a fun game. You can't take a plastic ball that seriously," said Manuel.
The sport was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island by several friends who were looking for something fun to do, and they named it after one of the inventors' dog, Pickles. Today, it’s a popular sport for many locals, including Gig Harbor residents.
But for Manuel and three friends, this unique hybrid of badminton, tennis and pingpong isn't just a sport. It's therapy.
"I feel different if I don't play," said Gene Armstrong, who joins the group each week. All four men have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and they said the game helps them focus on balance and coordination.
During the week, they split their time between the Y, where they join other pickleballers who play competitively, and the , where they work on the basics.
From the footwork to the ground strokes, they don't take anything for granted.
Manuel was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease seven years ago at age 55--the same age his mother was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative brain disorder.
"I noticed that I was catching my foot," he said. "The doctor said I couldn't have Parkinson's because [it was] one-sided. My mom's was one-sided."
But just to be sure, Manuel saw a neurologist.
"The neurologist took one look at me and said, ‘You have Parkinson's.’"
With his paddle, Manuel is taking a swing at the disease. He said he has played pickleball for more than 35 years. But since retiring in 2008, he’s intensified his passion. And in the past year, he recruited Armstrong, 74, Bruce Higgins,62, and Rick Olivier, 63, whom he met through activities at YMCA.
"The more I exercised, it's the best medicine you can take," Manuel said. "I've even increased it to where it's called forced exercise, where you increase the aptitude and duration and that creates new connections in the brain."
Parkinson's is a gradual and progressive neurologic disease caused by the breakdown of the normal dopamine-producing cells in the brain, according to Sharon Jung, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, ARNP, CNRN, at the South Puget Sound Neurology,
"The same process is happening for everybody. Everybody would have Parkinson's disease if they lived to be 120. We don't know why, but some people's break down quicker than others. When about 80 percent of dopamine is absent or not being used the way it should, that's when symptoms start," she said.
Jung said the most noticeable symptoms include tremors, slow and stiff movements and difficulty balancing.
Parkinson's can also immobile facial expressions, which Manuel said can lead people into isolation.
While scientists have yet to find a cure for the disease, Jung said there are ways to manage and treat Parkinson's, and physical activities such as Tai Chi, bicycling and pickleball help exercise the brain's circuitry.
"It's a great way to get exercise without thinking about it,” said Higgins. “You just get in the game. Get in the competition and end up exercising longer and more aggressively than I would normally.”
All four said it was difficult to accept their diagnosis at first, but they're also determined not to let the disease slow them down.
"(Pickleball) makes me feel still young," said Higgins. "I don't know what it is, but I really look forward to it."
Armstrong agreed. "It's a large part of my life because I feel so much better after playing it, and I think the exercise is helping slow down the progression for it," he said. "Parkinson's disease isn't a death sentence. You can live with it if you manage it correctly."
Manuel enjoys the boost, too.
"When I have a good day and I'm on, get a good shot--I don't have Parkinson's.”
While participating in physical activities is important to those with Parkinson's, there are other ways you can stay informed, voice concerns and ask questions about the disease.
Advanced nurse practitioner Sharon Jung said getting involved with community groups also helps maintain relationships with friends and family.
Manuel and Jung head local resource groups for people and their loved ones with Parkinson's disease. Manuel started Gig Harbor's first Parkinson's support group in 2008, and he and the others currently at at 4 p.m. Jung coordinates a group in Tacoma.
"People tend to not come if they're newly diagnosed because they don't want to see the future," he said "Once they get to immobile, they don't come."
Jung said she's working to create a group for early diagnosis called "Early Parkinson's: What's Next."
"We both see the enormous need for early detection for Parkinson's and make sure they have accurate information," she said.