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Pedalers push through Parkinson's

posted Dec 5, 2015, 1:30 PM by Dianne James
Kim Spletter encourages herself and others to take Parkinson’s disease sitting down, pedaling with a vengeance.

Leading by example, she teaches a stationary spin cycle class for people with Parkinson’s at the YMCA of Frederick County.

“I know what they’re going through,” she said.

For at least 10 years, Spletter, 50, has had the neurological condition that involves a loss of dopamine production in the brain. The result is an array of increasingly severe physical symptoms ranging from tremors and stiffness to complete lack of muscle control.

Spletter was always an avid bicycle rider, and the loss of muscle control associated with her Parkinson’s gradually made riding a two-wheeled bike impossible. For the retired Montgomery County deputy sheriff and fitness enthusiast, losing muscle function, coordination and mobility hit hard.

“Basically, you name it, and I couldn’t do it,” she said.

She experimented with stationary cycling, and her experience bore out research findings that the spin cycling is not only possible, but beneficial for those with Parkinson’s.

A spin cycling program, Pedaling for Parkinson’s, was developed as a result of the research and has been introduced in many fitness centers, including YMCAs, around the country, said Judy Couillard, director of the Frederick YMCA’s Health and Wellness Department.

Spletter has been spin cycling for more than a decade. The intense rhythmic motion helps the body use dopamine more efficiently and override the brain dysfunction that typically interrupts control for people with Parkinson’s. That is what happens for Jackie Thomas, who has been dealing with Parkinson’s for 11 years and now attends Spletter’s class.

“I walk out of here, and I feel invigorated and in control,” Thomas said. “It’s good for balance.”

Spletter keeps her class on a rhythm, calling out target numbers of revolutions per minute to pedal.

In a class that lasted about an hour, Spletter called out various target rates, often holding at 70: “Seven zero,” she added for clarity as she pedaled. “One more minute at 70.”

Pedaling like a machine, she advised one class member to check her toes, to make sure her foot was properly lined up on the pedal for maximum effectiveness, and for all to keep their shoulders soft.

When one woman’s water bottle dropped to the floor, Spletter jumped off to retrieve it for her, jumped back on and got back in the rhythm.

Noting a lag in a few legs, she pitched encouragement: “Keep it up, keep it up.”

Most are able to almost keep pace with Spletter.

In addition to the power of pedaling, she has seen an even more dramatic improvement in her own condition since participating in a clinical trial in August. She needed a wheelchair when she went to University of Maryland Medical Center for the new procedure that involves high-intensity focused ultrasound applied deep in the brain without any surgical cutting.

“My brain has been zapped,” Spletter said. “Immediately after the procedure, I could walk to my room.”

She said that while she still has Parkinson’s — the loss of dopamine production, she is experiencing no outward symptoms any more. She hopes the trial will result in a widely available procedure to eliminate Parkinson’s symptoms.

With the experimental procedure behind her, Spletter plunged ahead to lead the YMCA spin class that was scheduled to start in September, and she will continue to lead the cycle class, Couillard said. Improving physical health can reduce and slow the progression of the disease, Couillard and Spletter said.

“If you stop, you get worse,” Spletter said.

Mondays and Wednesdays, the current class includes men and women of different ages at different stages of the disease. As class starts, members take their cycle seats and prepare to take Spletter’s instruction.

At 90 RPMs, Spletter said no one should be a “chatty Cathy,” as the exertion should nearly take one’s breath away, hers included.

“Keep it up,” she said in one quick breath. She pedaled at 90 RPMs while Blondie belted out “Heart of Glass” for background music.

“Would you accept 85 [RPMs]?” asked one breathless pedaler.

“I accept you showing up,” Spletter said with a smile.

The class has the express purpose of improving the quality of life for people suffering from Parkinson’s, Couillard said. Both physical and emotional outcomes may improve, she said. The next class session will start in January.

“It’s like a support group,” Thomas said.

Slight tremors shook Thomas’ hands after the class, but during the class, she was in control, pedaling along without a hiccup. She said she has never let the disease dominate her life.

“You don’t want to be defined by it,” Thomas said. “It’s not who I am.

“We all say it’s not the end.”