How Sailing and Exercise Help me Cope with Parkinson’s Disease - Guest post by By Steve Van Vlaenderen


I have always wanted to sail. It was a life time dream since I was a child. However, competing obligations such as family and business career always came first forcing me to postpone my dream of one day having my own sailboat. Someday attitude turns out to be fifty years.  At sixty I finally (five years ago) purchased ‘Cloud’, a thirty one foot Niagra.  Taking sailing lessons and navigation courses I began to experience what it was truly like sailing.

It was a wonderful experience that taught me a lot about my life. That first year of sailing was overshadowed by learning that I had Parkinson’s. My outlook on life immediately changed. As I listened to the prognoses I began to get visions about the end of my life, sitting in a care home being feed with a spoon, or being put into some undignified position while having to go to the bathroom with a seemingly uncaring health worker just doing his or her job.

My dreams and aspirations became shattered. The purpose in my life disappeared in one single verdict from the Neurologist. No longer was I in control of my life; dependent on medications for the rest of my life to address the symptoms; in which, according to the Doctor will loose its effectiveness over time requiring an ever increase in dosage to relieve the symptoms. The words; “there is no cure for Parkinson’s Disease,” still resonates in my mind to this day.

Accepting the Doctors recommendations I was immediately put on a medication program to slow down the progression of the Parkinson’s disease. Without question I took my meds every day for the next two years. Despite the treatment, I was still experiencing deterioration in mobility and activities.

The hardest thing was copping with the continuous feelings of sadness, loss of interest, and pleasure’s. Negative thinking became the norm in my day, yielding to a feeling of nervousness and worried thoughts which exacerbated my physical distress. My weight ballooned to 258lbs, my waist expanded to 40 inches from 34 inches. My self- esteem bottomed. I was slowly being stripped of any hope to deal with the disorder.

I had to do something, anything was better than what I was going through. I was at my lowest point ever. Somehow I instinctively realized I   held the power to create a huge change in my life but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, I didn’t quite know how to make the change.

It was a Sunday morning on September 29, 2013. I decided to take control of my own life, beginning with   developing a written plan and I marked down the following four points. 1.    Don’t let Parkinson’s stand in my way of achieving my dreams, experiencing happiness and pleasures 2.    Manage my stress level. 3.    Research alternative therapies for managing Parkinson’s 4.    Engage myself in an exercise program or sport

I started by defining small goals with measurable achievements. The first priority was of course to lose the weight, 20lbs by Christmas. A commitment to the gym at least three times per week. I started the gym that same day. I had to work on my self-esteem issues. Working on feeling good about myself, I felt was an excellent starting point.

Three weeks into my workout routine, I was approached by a trainer who had observed me working out diligently, and complemented my efforts. Continuing with his conversation, gave me advice that would forever turn my life around. Proper nutrition, eating clean is the way to weight loss, he would say.

Losing weight is 90% nutrition and 10% exercise. Taking his advice I started an eat clean diet that very next day. Noticeable changes became evident within the first thirty days. I not only achieved my goal of losing 20 lbs by Christmas but exceeded my goal by losing 40lbs in less than 3 months.

Losing the weight had such a profound, life altering effect on me that went beyond the sense of accomplishments. My time in the gym coupled with proper nutrition provided me with incredible health benefits. It forced me to learn about my own body, how it works, and how to manage my Parkinson’s disease.

It gave me mental clarity and focus, physical strength and spirit. It taught me discipline and commitment. I understood and accepted the reality of living with Parkinson’s disease; adapting the motto ‘Change what you can, manage what you can’t’. For the first time in over two years I felt that I had regained some semblance of control of my own life.

My doctor suggested that I give up sailing due to possible balance problems inherent with having Parkinson’s. I felt my dream was shattered. Although I was suffering from depression I refused to surrender my dream. Instead I continued to sail, logging an average of 800 nautical miles each summer.


Sailing requires a lot of discipline and knowledge. I correlated this experience to taking ownership and control of my own health. While sailing I don’t seem to experience the symptoms of Parkinson’s, I appear to be relieved of any outside stresses of normal life.


It has been fifteen months since I first started my journey. My transformation has not only astounded me, but also my Doctors. I continuously receive complements from strangers, in some cases inspiring them to pursue a life style change. What is so exciting to me is that not only have I lost sixty six pounds, dropping my weight down to 192lbs, but it’s how great I feel. I feel stronger, my physique has improved at sixty five years of age,

I have been able to stay lean, reduced my body fat to less than 8%, reduced my stress level, eliminated anxiety attacks, reduced cholesterol levels, reduced internal inflammation, I sleep better, acid reflux disappeared, arthritic pain is almost entirely eliminated. I even stopped snoring.

I have mental focus, clarity and sharpness like I never had before. I am more productive and creative than ever. It has taught me to learn more about my own body, how it works, how exercise, nutrition and the mind can work in harmony; for me, this was my medicine, I listened to what my body was telling me, what I needed and took appropriate actions.

My Parkinson’s improved while sailing. I plan to continue sailing for years to come. I haven’t cured my Parkinson’s Disease, however most important and most incredible as it may seem, I’ve slowed down the progression of my Parkinson’s disease.

By Steve Van Vlaenderen

Originally posted at sailmanitoba in the 2015 Spring issue of The Porthole Magazine

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