Cycling class offers new hope for Idahoans with Parkinson's

Posted at 6:55 AM, May 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-08 08:55:09-04

A cycling class unlike any other you'll find in the Gem State is having a huge impact on the lives of Idahoans living with Parkinson's disease.

Dozens of people are putting in hours at the gym - not just to get in shape, but to overturn the effects of what is often a debilitating disease. What they’ve found is that there is some incredible healing, and hope, in just the push of a pedal.

Marilyn Simmonds is one of the class participants; she was diagnosed with Parkinson's three years ago. "I had noticed some strange symptoms like jerking with my hand, so it was time to see a neurologist and then I got the devastating diagnosis."

Right away, Simmonds started treatment. First, of course, medicine. Simmonds says, at first, "The medication did help with a lot of the symptoms and yet there was something not quite right…"

So her doctor also recommended exercise, and after just a few rounds in the Pedaling for Parkinson's class, Simmonds says she noticed something remarkable. "My leg wasn't quite as strong, my right leg and my right foot, and then with Pedaling for Parkinson’s that really has dramatically changed. I can't even tell a difference now in any of my limbs...My doctor said on my last visit - she said I wouldn't even know you had Parkinsons disease."

That’s right: her symptoms, all but gone. And Simmonds' results aren't the exception here; they're the rule.

Says Saint Luke’s Elks Rehab physical therapist Cheryl Batty, “All the symptoms of Parkinson’s improve. And that's the beauty of it."

Batty was instrumental in bringing Pedaling for Parkinson's to Boise. She has been following research out of the Cleveland Clinic showing brisk bouts of cycling temporarily – but vastly - improve the symptoms of Parkinson's.

"We get off the bike and we see a decrease in that tremor in folks,” says Batty. “So we're not even using the upper body yet it takes across the board those Parkinson’s symptoms and improves them all."

In a Parkinson's patient, a neuro-transmitter called dopamine slowly stops being produced. Dopamine helps control body movement and emotions, and it’s our “gitty up and go,” as Batty puts it.

Lack of dopamine leads to the tremors and jerky movements you so often see in people with Parkinson's, and also makes people feel like they're moving through quick-sand.

The Cleveland Clinic research found that sustained, high-intensity exercise helps "open up" dopamine receptors in the brain, which allows medications targeting those receptors to be better absorbed. And the level of exercise does matter. "Staying at a sustained rate 30-40 minutes at a time…we open up the neuro-pathways that accept dopamine so those medications we're taking, we're putting them to better use,” Batty explains.

She says it's important to note it’s the combination of medication and brisk exercise that makes this treatment so effective. But any treatment against this progressive neurological disorders a huge win, since as Batty says, “This is a disease that you can fight. Unlike many of the other neurological diagnoses you get, you can actually fight this one."

Even better? Patients who put in time on the bike need less medication than those who don't. "We want to keep our medication at the lowest level possible,” Batty says. “And through exercise and being able to use dopamine more effectively we can."

And for anyone wondering if this might work for them, Simmonds would say the proof is in the pedaling. "It's a wonderful thing with this disease that we do have the ability to fight it, because otherwise you're just…this person with this horrible illness. But we are really able to fight back and that feels good."

For now, there are only two local YMCA’s hosting Pedaling for Parkinson’s classes: the Downtown Y and the West Y. The class, though, is just one component of an entire program for Parkinson's patients called Delay the Disease. Click here for a list of Pedaling for Parkinson's class times and to get more information on Delay the Disease.