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Pedaling for Parkinson's

How high cadence cycling is helping patients overcome symptoms
Posted at 6:00 PM, Feb 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-01 20:06:20-05

In this week’s Wellness Wednesday, we take you to Intermountain Health’s Live Well Center, where patients with Parkinson’s disease are relieving their symptoms not with medicine but with bicycles.

“It is kind of scary when you find out, you have Parkinson's,” said patient Lamont Dorrity.

Dorrity has lived with Parkinson’s as a son and as a patient. He’s now 62-years-old.

“So, early 50s, is when I started to show the symptoms of Parkinson's. My dad had Parkinson's. And unfortunately, a lot of times you'll see it handed down from generation to generation or from father to son…,” said Dorrity.

Dr. Kathleen McKee says, “Parkinson's really has many faces. And I have people in my clinic, ranging from their 30s, to their 90s. And I have people who are still working, I have men, I have women. “

Dr. McKee has dedicated her career to patients with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.

“We actually think that Parkinson's starts 20 years or more before someone's motor symptoms,” said McKee.

McKee and colleagues around the country are trying to understand a phenomenon first noticed at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Jay Albert entered a cycling event with a patient on the back of his tandem bike.

“After a day of riding on the back of Jay’s tandem bicycle, she got off and said, gosh, like my Parkinson's symptoms feel better. And then she rode, you know, with Jay for another day and someone had a birthday, they passed her on a birthday card, and she signs the birthday card, and her handwriting was so much better.”

It wasn’t a fluke. More cycling led to better outcomes…but cycling of a specific kind.

“So, they pedal fast, and when that happens, the motor cortex and some of the chemistry related to that works hard to build connections, and that’s one of the ways through exercise that we stimulate something that counteracts a little bit of the Parkinson’s affect,” said Adam Ballenger.

It is about the speed of movement – 80 or more rotations per minute.

“It can be a workout, but it's I personally think it's fun,” said Dorrity.

Lamont is all in. Not just on the pedaling, but on attacking Parkinson’s with all his strength.

“So now my day to day starts at 7:30 or 8:00 usually swimming laps. And then I go from there to a least one or two water aerobics classes. And then on Tuesdays and Thursdays I am here at two o'clock,” said Dorrity.

And he does see the added benefit of that high cadence pedaling.

“On the second day, as I was leaving, it just felt more fluid. I don't know if you notice I have a little bit of a limp when I walk and I have a little bit of a swagger and a little bit of a shuffle sometimes,” said Dorrity.

Dr. McKee has seen the benefits going back to training at Mass General Hospital in Boston, where one anecdote turned into repeated success.

“I think I thought that until I started talking to my patients, and heard you know, that it's not just a one-off story like that. There are quite a few patients who have had that experience,” said McKee.

But part of the cruelty of Parkinson’s is that it also attacks your emotions.

“For everybody who's taken these classes, and has an amazing story, I don't know how many other patients are at home on the couch, either physically unable to do it. Or maybe you know, a common symptom in Parkinson's is apathy,” said McKee.

Getting to a class and starting is its own mountain to climb. Lamont gets that and has encouraging words for anyone who feels like they cannot get to where he is.

“You just start where you can start. And eventually you'll get to where you need to be. And you'll see the benefits from it,” said Dorrity.

Dr. McKee is part of a team across the U.S. and Canada researching exercise and Parkinson’s. They want to find out if exercise can slow the progress of the disease because right now, medicines can only address the symptoms.

If you or a loved are in the early stages of Parkinson’s and are interested the SPARX3 Clinical Trial, please visit spark3pd.com for more information.