Why Pedaling Is Powerful for Parkinson’s

Put the brakes on Parkinson’s symptoms with a bike ride. Learn how cycling can improve balance, posture, coordination and more!

What has two wheels and can increase balance, flexibility and joint mobility; improve posture and coordination; strengthen bones and muscles; and decrease body weight and stress levels? You guessed it: a bicycle.

Besides strengthening your heart and lungs, lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure, burning obscene amounts of calories, improving your immune system and boosting your mood, cycling helps maintain healthy connections between the brain and physical body – making it the perfect workout for people with Parkinson’s.

Not just a leisurely bike ride

There have been countless research studies conducted over the years that link cardio exercise to improvement in symptoms in Parkinson’s disease. Many of those studies involved having participants cycle on stationary bikes. In fact, experts believe cycling can help increase certain proteins in the brain that help with movement and cognitive function.

For instance, taking a back seat on a bicycle built for two – or tandem bike – is a fun and effective way to tame many symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Pedal fast enough, and it may work just as well as brain stimulation therapy.

Typically, Parkinson’s symptoms like stiffness, rigidity and slowed movements affect one side of the body more than the other. As you start to rely more on your “good” side, symptoms on the bad side tend to worsen.

On a tandem bike, your partner rides up front, and you sit in the back. The faster your partner pedals, the faster your legs need to move – much faster than you would on a typical day, and possibly faster than you’d do if you were biking by yourself.

This “forced exercise” helps restore nerve and muscle memory. In other words, thanks to team work between you and your bike partner, you’re reminding your stiff, rigid limbs how to get moving again.

The Parkinson’s bicycling backstory

Cleveland Clinic neuroscientist Jay Alberts and colleagues took MRI brain scans of Parkinson’s patients who performed forced exercise cycling to see how the brain reacted. They found a brain activity pattern that was almost identical to those who just took PD medication.

In 2003, Alberts took a 1,000+ mile tandem bike ride with a woman with Parkinson’s. During the journey, she said she felt nearly disease-free. And even though her legs were doing all the work, her handwriting – which had become small and hard to read, a common symptom of Parkinson’s – had suddenly become lovely, large and legible.

Alberts hopped back on the tandem bike with another Parkinson’s patient a few years later. This time, the cycling made PD tremors disappear. Curious, Alberts launched an eight-week study where people with PD rode bikes for 40 minutes, three times a week. Some just pedaled at any rate they desired, others had bikes with special forced exercise motors that made them cycle faster.

The result? Those that were forced to pedal faster had a 35 percent improvement in symptoms. Relief lasted about a month. Some symptom relief was similar to that seen with deep brain stimulation. But just like any exercise routine, you need to stick with it to maintain the benefits.

How to bike safely with Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease doesn’t just make you feel stiff and unsteady. It can also affect your reaction time. So, a traditional, one-person bike may pose some safety risks. For example, you could lose your balance and fall. Or you may not be able to stop in time. If that’s the case, opt for a tandem bike, three-wheeled bicycle or stationary bike instead.

If you have Parkinson’s, getting at least 2.5 hours of exercise a week can help you achieve a better quality of life than those who aren’t active or who start moving later in life, according to The Parkinson’s Outcomes Project, the largest-ever clinical study of Parkinson’s. Remember, swift pedaling is the key to symptom relief!

Join the Power Through Project to discover how cycling and other forms of exercise can help you thrive with Parkinson’s. You can also locate PD-friendly fitness classes in your area and meet others living with Parkinson’s around the world.

By Kelli Miller

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