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Parkinson's patients show improvement from cycling

posted Apr 12, 2013, 5:33 PM by Dianne James
A few years ago, while members were looking for ways to celebrate those participating in the annual Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic while battling Parkinson’s disease, Team Parkinson’s considered borrowing an old cycling tradition.

Just as the leader of the Tour de France gets to wear a yellow jersey, Team Parkinson’s considered unique jerseys so Parkinson’s patients would stand out in the field of 10,000.

“But people with Parkinson’s said, ‘No, I want them to think I’m out there without Parkinson’s,’” said Larry Jacobson, a team member and brother of a Parkinson’s patient. “... And some of the guys are really hammering out there. You wouldn’t know.”

For many Parkinson’s patients, their bikes are proving to be a refuge from their symptoms. The disease results in the degeneration of the nervous system causing tremors, reduced coordination and other symptoms.

Team Parkinson’s, part of the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation, has several goals. It wants to raise money for research. Its STP riders raise more than $100,000 per year.

“Some day, there is going to be a cure,” said Steve Wright, executive director of the foundation. “But we also want to help people in the here and now – help them make life a little better.”

This is why the foundation is also spreading the message that athletic activity can help Parkinson’s patients find temporary relief from their symptoms.

Tacoma’s Dave Covey, a Parkinson’s patient and foundation board member, is attempting to find tandem bikes and cyclists to participate in the 2014 STP. This year, he and another cyclist with Parkinson’s are doing it as a relay.

While the ride sold out Feb. 14, Team Parkinson’s has about 20 slots available. To claim a spot, people must pay the registration fee ($100) and pledge to raise at least $500 in donations. (Membership has its privileges, namely private rest stops with warm food and a masseuse.)

Covey says the idea for the tandem ride came from recent studies that have shown that Parkinson’s patients pedaling 80-90 rpms for 40 minutes or more at least three days per week have seen a decrease in symptoms.

While some patients can hold this pace on their own, for others, it’s too fast. Tandem bikes can fix this problem.

A foundation-sponsored study at the University of Washington is researching the idea that Parkinson’s patients also can decrease their symptoms through forced exercise (Holding that 80-90 rpm pace thanks to the chain linking the patient to a stronger rider on the front of the bike).

The idea of battling Parkinson’s from the seat of a bike has gained momentum in recent years. A decade ago, a doctor and one of his patients founded Pedaling for Parkinson’s after biking across Iowa and seeing the patient’s symptoms decreased by 35 percent.

Glenn Erickson, a Seattle bike frame builder battling Parkinson’s, leads a fundraising ride each July.

Davis Phinney, a Parkinson’s patient and Olympic cycling bronze medalist, started a foundation that funds research into the impact of aerobic exercise on the disease.

And gyms around the country are offering cycling programs designed for Parkinson’s patients.

Seven weeks ago, Tacoma’s Morgan Family YMCA started offering a spin class for Parkinson’s patients. The classes meet for 45 minutes Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:15 a.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. The program is looking for volunteers with and and without Parkinson’s, Covey said.

Only two people showed up for the first class, but it’s since grown to eight people, said Denise Hood, the gym’s wellness director.

While she says it’s still too soon to know just how much patients are benefiting from the classes, she’s heard positive feedback.

“One woman used a walker when she started and now she’s no longer using it,” Hood said. “And one caretaker said another man has seen improved mobility and increased leg strength.”

The YMCA offers a free one-month membership to those trying the Parkinson’s cycling class. The class is less intense than a standard studio cycling class, Hood said. Participants remain seated for the class and work on maintaining a constant speed.

“It’s going well so far,” said Hood, who leads one of the classes. “If it is making a difference for the people who are attending, that’s pretty exciting.”