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Exercise Can Improve Parkinson’s Symptoms

Cycling could be an effective, low-cost therapy to help repair central nervous system damage.

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Man on bicycle-- by Suzanne Boothby

The Gist

When Dr. Jay Alberts, a neuroscientist at the Cleveland Clinic, rode a tandem bicycle across Iowa with a Parkinson’s patient to raise awareness for the disease in 2003, he discovered that her symptoms improved.

"The finding was serendipitous," Dr. Alberts said. "I was pedaling faster than her, which forced her to pedal faster. She had improvements in her upper extremity function, so we started to look at the possible mechanism behind this improved function."

He has since expanded his research and found that people with Parkinson’s disease benefit from exercise on stationary bikes. People who pedaled faster had the greatest benefits, according to his findings presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

This chronic, progressive disease is characterized by early-stage symptoms like shaking and difficulty with walking. It can progress to cognitive and behavioral problems such as dementia. As the frequency of side effects increases, the therapeutic window begins to close.

The Expert Take

The study offers a new, more affordable method to treat Parkinson’s symptoms.

“The results show that forced-rate bicycle exercise is an effective, low-cost therapy for Parkinson's disease," said study co-author Chintan Shah.

While faster pedaling led to more significant results, not all Parkinson's patients need to do forced-rate exercise to see improvement, according to Dr. Alberts.

"We're now looking at this phenomenon in patients with exercise bikes in their home and other exercises like swimming and rowing on tandem machines may provide similar benefits," he said.

Source and Method

The Cleveland Clinic researchers used fcMRI (functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging) to study the effect of exercise on 26 Parkinson's disease patients. The patients underwent bicycle exercise sessions three times a week for eight weeks. Some patients exercised at a voluntary level and others underwent forced-rate exercise, pedaling at a speed above their voluntary rate. The researchers used a modified exercise bike to induce forced-rate activity.

The research team calculated brain activation and connectivity levels from the fcMRI results and correlated the data with average pedaling rate.

Results showed increases in task-related connectivity between the primary motor cortex and the posterior region of the brain's thalamus. Faster pedaling rate was the key factor related to improvements, which continued at the follow-up period.

The Takeaway

Exercise, especially fast pedaling on a bike, shows promise for relieving Parkinson’s symptoms.

About 7 to 10 million people live with the disease worldwide, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. Most cases occur after the age of 50. While deep brain stimulation is an effective therapy for late-stage Parkinson's disease, it’s both invasive and costly.

Other Research

A 2007 randomized, controlled trial found home exercise helped reduce falls and injuries for Parkinson’s patients.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Treatments

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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