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Pedalling with Parkinson's

posted Jul 24, 2014, 3:20 PM by Dianne James
MASON CITY, Iowa - One team is biking across Iowa this week for more than just the comradery and fun. They also pedal away because it’s good medicine.

“It was really difficult when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, because I just felt my life was coming to an end and I couldn’t do anything that I had been doing,” says Parkinson’s Patient, Nan Little.

After riding in four RAGBRAI’s and climbing mountains as high as Kilimanjaro, she has been proven wrong. She may not be doing all these things though, if it weren’t for her bike and a man named Jay Alberts.

“I thought, well how else can we encourage individuals in rural America with Parkinson’s to really understand that this is not a death sentence. I thought, well RAGBRAI might be that mechanism,” says Associate Professor at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Jay Alberts.

After seeing Alberts speak on national TV about the benefits of exercise for Parkinson’s patients, Little gave him a call.

“He said, well why don’t you and your husband ride across Iowa with us? And I said, well sure I’ll be happy to do that. I hung up the phone and I thought, 450 miles, oh my gosh how am I going to do that, I can barely ride a bike,” says Little.

At that time, she wasn’t in the best shape.

“Before I started the biking, my range of motion was about 90°. My hand was clinched at my side and bent into this claw shape. I had a big tremor, life was not so good,” says Little.

She didn’t let that stop her. She began training 4-6 days a week at a fast pace. One month later, she wasn’t prepared for the dramatic changes.

“I was walking my dogs and I looked down and my arm was swinging freely at my side. My hand was open. I realized I was not shuffling. I turned my head to the left and to the right as far as I could go. Then I started to cry. I just stood there on the sidewalk bawling,” says Little.

She says it was a miracle that through cycling she got her body back. Alberts however, was not as surprised. He currently has clinical trials underway to see if intense cycling and exercising can act as medicine.

“Actually, the results have been promising. The patterns of brain activity that are achieved, or occur with medication are very similar to the patterns that occur after the exercise. So in this case, it really does look like exercise is medicine,” says Alberts.

His inspiration began during RAGBRAI, so they keep coming back. During it, they are able to share their message with the thousands of riders.

“They can make a difference in their own lives, or their parents or families lives. Being able to share that message is huge, and you can do that on RAGBRAI day after day after day,” says Little.

For those who are interested in cycling to relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s, Little is working on getting the program; “Pedaling for Parkinson’s” into YMCAs across the country. For more information visit: