By: Amanda Cuda

BRIDGEPORT –Joe  D’Addario was having a tough time keeping his foot on the ball.

D’Addario, 79, of Fairfield, was in an exercise class at the Watermark at 3030 Park, a local senior housing complex. The class, which Watermark hosts every Thursday, is designed for people who, like D’Addario, have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Research has shown that exercise can improve balance, flexibility and motor coordination in those with the neurological disorder.

“It keeps you moving,” said D’Addario, who was diagnosed 10 years ago. “If you don’t (exercise) you’ll get stiffer and stiffer.”

One of the exercises D’Addario and the other students did during class involved rolling a small inflatable ball under the foot. He had some trouble initially. The ball kept sliding out from under his foot. But with determination — and encouragement from class instructor and Watermark fitness director Cindy McGuire — he was able to master the exercise.

In addition to the ball roll, the five students in the class did a variety of light stretches, some leg lifts, marching in place and other low-impact exercises. Though basic, McGuire said these moves can make a big difference in strengthening major muscle groups, including the chest and stomach.

“The more strengthening exercises they do and the more cardio, the better it is for them,” she said.

Parkinson’s disease affects four to six million people in the United States. Its symptoms include tremors, slow movement and trouble with balance. Watermark has offered a Parkinson’s support group for eight years and thought the exercise class would be a good addition said Marlane Argianas, resident services coordinator.

Argianas said the addition of the exercise class was largely motivated by a talk at one of the support group meetings by Cristina Colon-Semenza, a clinical instructor and physical therapist at the University of Connecticut’s Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic who suggested the exercise class, saying it might, in some cases, reverse some Parkinson’s symptoms.

“When your neurological system is challenged, it will respond, and you could see improvement,” Colon-Semenza said in a telephone interview.

Perhaps more powerful than the benefits of exercising are the potential effects of not exercising, Colon-Semenza said. Parkinson’s patients who don’t exercise are more likely to gain weight, which makes it even more difficult to move.

McGuire said the class is still too new to determine what effect it’s having on the students, but response has been positive so far. At a recent class, the mood was bright and cheery as students moved along with a CD of up-tempo versions of such standards as “You Make Me Feel So Young” and “Fever.” McGuire also called out encouragement to the group.

“You’ve got to work those muscles,” she said. “It’s what you do to give you confidence in your daily lives.”

Martha Rogowski, 72, of Fairfield, said she likes the class and feels like it’s helping her. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009, and it’s affected her ability to write, take long drives and do a variety of other activities.

“It limits you physically, and your ability to do what you want,” she said.

After class, Rogowski said, she generally feels better.

“It helps with flexibility and balance,” she said. “That’s the main thing.”