“We must prepare our brain and body to face all difficulties”
Author: Scarlett SherriffPublished: 21 July 2022
Prep: Cook: Serves:
Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Nikolas Koukoulakis has learned what he can about the potential benefits of powerlifting. He tells us what inspired him to coach a team of people with living with the condition in Greece
Tell us a bit about yourself and your experience of Parkinson’s.
I was born and live in Athens, Greece, and I am 53 years old. I’ve been involved in sports since I was in elementary school – I did everything, from football to ping pong to cycling. I got hooked on weightlifting and powerlifting when I was twelve years old.
I wanted to study to become a trainer, but when I wasn’t offered a place, I pursued my other passion: photography. I’ve taken photographs in various places around the world.
While working for a Greek photography agency, I noticed that I was struggling to control the camera and didn’t know why. Driving also started to become difficult. I knew something was wrong. In 2009, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
How did you get involved in weightlifting and powerlifting following your diagnosis?
After my diagnosis, I got a place to study physical education and sports science. I also did a masters, which was in molecular and applied physiology. My speciality was therapeutic exercise, and my thesis was about the benefits of exercise for people with Parkinson’s.
Whilst I had always done competitive weightlifting, I had stopped this after an accident. I still lifted heavy weights and did deep squats, but I had never done any international powerlifting competitions until I met Andreas Kolettis, who is a volunteer coach at Special Olympics Hellas Powerlifting.
I joined the team as a coach, because of my speciality in weightlifting, and I continued to train myself. I became strong enough to compete and took part in competitions in Georgia, Ukraine and Russia.
Nikolas says “we must do something for ourselves”.
What inspired you to start a group of fellow powerlifters?
I train in a gym close to my home alongside other people with Parkinson’s. I try to convince Parkinson’s community about the benefits of powerlifting, but a lot of people resist. They say: “You’ve always done powerlifting, we can’t be like you.” But I’ve known people who are ready to take part in international competitions after just one year.
In 2018, I found out about the Parkinson Games from its organiser Ruud Overes. So, I started forming the team to compete. And if a small country like Greece can form a growing powerlifting team for people with Parkinson’s, every country in the world can do it.
Why do you think strength training is so important for people with Parkinson’s?
The Covid-19 lockdown made me realise how significant powerlifting is for me. When the gym was closed, I would go out with my walking stick to walk for five or six kilometres a day; I couldn’t run anymore because of my freezing of gait. Then when it was snowy, I couldn’t go outside at all anymore, so I bought a treadmill and used that every day. I was finding that I was losing my balance and strength and my arms were shaking more. I decided I had to do something, so I made a personal gym at home.
Eventually, other people with Parkinson’s started asking me if we could train together. We trained together for six months and took part in an online powerlifting competition. I found that my symptoms started to improve, and I started walking outside again.
Strength training can offer so many potential benefits to people with Parkinson’s. For example, high intensity weightlifting exercises can help to strengthen posture muscles – which may mean fewer falls – and improve confidence. Powerlifting with others can also help with socialisation, especially after feelings of isolation brought on during the pandemic.
Strength training is a base for all sports – every athlete in the world, no matter what sport they do, likely also does powerlifting training.
What advice would you offer someone looking to do more exercise and maybe even start powerlifting?
Everybody can do any exercise that makes them feel nice and happy. I choose powerlifting and I love it. My main advice would be to be active daily, and if possible, to try and incorporate strength training into your routine two or three times a week.
We cannot expect everything from the doctors – we must do something for ourselves. We have to exercise, move, play games. No matter what science can do for people living with Parkinson’s, we must prepare our brain and body to face all difficulties.
Need to know
Nikolas Koukoulakis is a powerlifting coach and former photographer based in Greece. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009, he has since decided to share his passion for powerlifting with other people living with Parkinson’s in his community. He has a daughter and granddaughter, who live in Sweden.
Every Victory Counts: will you get sporty for Parkinson’s disease?
Get moving with the Davis Phinney Foundation
5 months ago
35 new Parkinson’s drug trials launched in last year
Researchers launched 35 new clinical trials of Parkinson’s drug therapies in the last year, according to recent findings published in the ‘Journal of Parkinson’s Disease’. The 2023 Parkinson’s drug development pipeline report noted a slight decrease in active trials compared to the 2022 update (down from 147 to 139 overall). About one-third of trials were still in Phase 1, half were in Phase 2 – and just 20 (14%) were in Phase 3, raising concerns about ‘slow progress’. However, of the active trials logged on ClinicalTrials.gov at the time of the latest report, 35 were found to be newly registered. The report authors concluded: “The slow progress and lack of agents transitioning from Phase 2 to Phase 3 is concerning, but collective efforts by various stakeholders are being made to accelerate the clinical trial process, with the aim of bringing new therapies to the [Parkinson’s] community sooner.”
Parkinson’s Europe co-founder Lizzie Graham wins World Parkinson Coalition award
Parkinson’s Europe co-founder Lizzie Graham has won a World Parkinson Coalition (WPC) award for her contribution to the Parkinson’s community. Lizzie is one of four people set to receive the Robin Elliott Award – which is given out every three years to individuals whose efforts best embody the goals and ethos of the WPC. She will be presented with the award in a ceremony at the World Parkinson’s Congress, which will be held in Barcelona later this year. Commenting on the news of Lizzie’s award, Parkinson’s Europe President, Veronica Clark, said: “Lizzie is Lizzie, and we love her for who she is and what she has done for us all – for people with Parkinson’s past and present and, I’m sure, future.” Lizzie co-founded the European Parkinson’s Disease Association (renamed Parkinson’s Europe last year) in 1992. She has since held several roles within the organisation – including secretary general and…
Study explores predictors of cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s disease
Cognitive impairment can affect some people with Parkinson’s – and may greatly impact their quality of life. Now, researchers in China have examined the possible risk factors for cognitive impairment in those with the condition. The study analysed data from 409 people with Parkinson’s within two years of their involvement in the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) – an international study that follows people with and without the condition over time. The participants, who were newly diagnosed and experiencing normal cognitive function at the start of the research, were studied for at least five years. Published in ‘Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience’, the results indicate that older age at onset, high blood pressure and worse baseline motor symptoms may be among factors that could contribute to an increased risk of developing cognitive impairment. The researchers cautioned that “a larger sample and much more comprehensive assessment, and prolonged follow-up, will be required”.