Nan Little, PhD, of Seattle, Washington, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in February of 2008 at the age of 62. “I figured life was over.” Then a friend told her about a clip on Pedaling for Parkinson’s with Dr. Jay Alberts he’d seen on NBC Nightly News. Alberts, a neuroscientist and Cleveland Clinic researcher, had been preaching the simple benefits of bicycling in treating the disease.
The gist: People with Parkinson’s who pedaled at a high rate of speed—in this case by being “forced” to pedal faster as a stoker on a tandem bike—for 40 minutes three times a week saw a 35 percent reduction in their symptoms. Little was intrigued. Parkinson’s had been eroding her mobility and range of motion, and modern medicine offered few options.
“We think the benefits come from the increased rate of information to the brain,” Alberts says. “As you make your movements faster, more regular and more efficient, you have an increase in the quality and quantity of information going to the brain, which potentially triggers the release of neurotrophic factors or proteins in the brain that are responsible for improvements in motor and cognitive function.” With nothing to lose, Little called Alberts, and shortly thereafter embarked on a bicycling journey that would change everything. “It saved my life,” she says plainly, “and I’m quite certain many others.” Here’s why.
The real benefits come from what the scientists coin “forced exercise,” going at a faster rate of speed—about 30% ideally—than you normally would. (For most cyclists with Parkinson’s the goal is 80 rpm or higher; many pedal only 40 to 50 rpm on their own.) Riding a bike is the simplest—and maybe safest—way to do that, says Alberts. “Cycling is low impact and most people can do it. You can’t force someone to walk faster without an overhead harness in case they fall. But you can get them on a tandem or a stationary bike and safely push the pace.”
During Little’s first conversation with Alberts, he invited her to ride with his Pedaling for Parkinson’s group at RAGBRAI (a 450 mile ride across Iowa). She accepted then immediately hung up and thought, “What are you doing?” she recalls. “You can’t turn your head more than 90 degrees; your arm is stuck at your side; you shuffle when you walk, and you just said you’d ride 450 miles.”
Little used to bike commute to her job, but hadn’t ridden regularly for six years. So she found some open, quiet roads around Seattle’s Seward Park and started riding four to six days a week, building up to 4 hour long outings. A month later while walking her dog, she noticed that both of her arms were swinging freely, her head was fully rotating, and she wasn’t shuffling anymore—both of which seemed impossible just 30 days prior. “I stopped and stood there and bawled.”IT’S AS EFFECTIVE AS MEDICINE
In one study, Alberts had volunteers with Parkinson’s perform 60-minute exercise sessions including a 10-minute warm up, 40 minutes at high intensity exercise, and a 10-minute cool down three times a week for eight weeks. The exercise not only improved the connectivity between areas of the brain as well as commonly used medications for Parkinson’s, but also the improvements in symptoms lasted eight weeks after the study was done.
IT GIVES YOU CONTROL…AND HOPE
Parkinson’s is a disease that makes you feel hopeless and steals your control. Cycling gives both back, says John Carlin of Parker, Colorado, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2002 at the age of 44, and has ridden every RAGBRAI but one (a year he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with Little) on a tandem with Dr. Phil Martin of Iowa State since discovering Dr. Alberts and Pedaling for Parkinson’s in 2009.
“The doctors say, ‘You have this disease. It’s incurable. Sorry.’ But if you commit to this and are willing to push yourself, you see great benefits in just a couple of weeks,” says Carlin. “It saved me. This has slowed down the progression of the disease for me. I’m 15 years into it and people don’t even know I have it. I haven’t had to raise my medications for any reason for the last 4 or 5 years.”
Getty ImagesNeurological diseases can be isolating. Cycling—especially when you’re part of a team—is social. “One of my great joys when riding RAGBRAI is to talk to all the people along the way,” says Little. “They see my PFP kit and start asking questions and telling stories. You’re part of something larger than yourself.”YOU CAN DO IT YEAR ROUND
Indoor cycling classes are a great way to work out at least three days a week year round, says Carlin, who started an indoor Pedaling for Parkinson’s class at his local YMCA, which is one of about 60 programs around the country.
THE SIDE EFFECTS ARE WONDERFUL
The side effects are also contagious, says Little who shares her story in her book If I Can Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Why Can’t I Brush My Teeth? and during speaking engagements. “Bicycling gives you self efficacy, which is so important when you’re feeling despair. One man came up after hearing me speak and said, ‘I was ready to go commit suicide, but instead I bought a bike.’ It’s such a simple thing. You don’t take any pills. In fact, I’ve lowered my medications 20 percent in the past year. You just get on your bike.”
SELENE YEAGER “The Fit Chick”Selene Yeager is a top-selling professional health and fitness writer who lives what she writes as a NASM certified personal trainer, USA Cycling certified coach, pro licensed mountain bike racer, and All-American Ironman triathlete.