MURRAY, Utah (ABC4 Utah) – An innovative cycling spin program at Intermountain Health’s Park City Live Well Center is helping patients with Parkinson’s Disease reduce its symptoms.

The Intermountain Pedaling for Parkinson’s is a program using exercise to mitigate motor symptoms related to Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a disease of the central nervous system. Parkinson’s begins when certain nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, begin to die. Dopamine is a chemical that sends messages to the parts of the brain that control movement and mood and motivation.

As the disease progresses, the amount of dopamine produced in the brain decreases, causing stiffness, slowness, tremor, and difficulty walking along with many “non-motor” symptoms you can’t see like depression, apathy, constipation, low blood pressure, and urinary trouble.

Research has shown that exercise can improve motor symptoms and it may even be disease modifying.  Cycling has particularly shown benefit—but only when participants cycle at a higher rate. 

In original research trials, this rate was “forced” by having the patients ride on the back of stationary tandem bicycles where the front person on the bicycle set the rate and the person with Parkinson’s had to stick with it.

Since tandem bicycles aren’t the most feasible, the Intermountain Pedaling for Parkinson’s program has adopted the protocol to coach participants to achieve the high cadence on their own on a spin bike.

“A proper spin bike with a heavy metal fly wheel where you can set the resistance to almost nothing is needed. In this case, through cycle spinning on a stationary bike. The higher cadence pedaling that is focused on in the spinning classes has shown to have a positive effect on reducing Parkinson’s symptoms,” said Kathleen McKee, MD, director of the Intermountain Movement Disorders Center and associate medical director of neuroscience research at Intermountain Health.

Two of Intermountain’s exercise physiologists are currently leading a cycling spin class. The group sessions offer space where individuals with Parkinson’s can exercise with peers and be coached to achieve the dose and intensity of exercise shown to be beneficial in trials. Often these classes become unofficial peer support groups – adding to the benefit of getting out and getting on the bike.

“When the Parkinson’s clients are pushed to peddle at high cadences, the rate is vigorous and even a bit uncomfortable when sustained,” said Adam Ballenger, exercise physiologist for Intermountain Health and instructor of Intermountain Pedaling for Parkinson’s.

Lamont Dorrity has participated in the Intermountain Pedaling for Parkinson’s program for more than six months.

Dorrrity was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his early 50’s and has found that the most challenging symptom were the tremors that particularly took place on the left side of his body. As Parkinson’s progressed, his strength, balance and walking were also affected.

“I have found that staying active helps minimize these symptoms. I currently swim laps and attend water aerobics classes daily on weekdays,” said Lamont. “This has been helpful, but my Neurologist and Physical Therapist both mentioned cycling studies that helped with walking and strengthening and possibly balance.  As soon as I heard about the Park City Hospital spin class I immediately signed up.” 

Dr. McKee adds that the dosing of exercise that is recommended is at minimum three hour long cycling classes per week during which participants do a 10-minute warm up, 40-min main set maintaining cadence and cardiovascular targets, and then a 10-minute cool down. 

“We don’t know exactly how this works but hypothesize that the exercise may feed back into the central nervous system to cause release of neurotrophic factors or stimulate extra dopamine release. The really amazing thing about cycling is that even though it’s only a leg workout patients show benefit in global motor function – including their arms – after a session of high-cadence cycling,” she said.

“Lamont is typically an upbeat person who often shares a positive outlook on things,” added Ballenger. “I have noticed that after some sessions, Lamont appears to have a slight improvement in the way he moves, including his postural control and how quickly he moves, at the end of class.” 

Dorrity has also recognized the benefits and impact that the cycling classes they make in his life each day.

“Since participating in this class, I have noticed a difference in both walking and strength and possibly even improved balance.  I have found that consistency is key to getting the most benefit from the program,” said Dorrity. “If I only attend one class a week (or no classes), I don’t recognize the benefits I really feel like my exercise and spin class make all the difference. I believe that many of my day-to-day activities would be more difficult.”

The benefits of the Intermountain Pedaling for Parkinson’s Program has also impacted other Parkinson’s patients and looks to do the same for others.

“Mr. Lamont is not the only patient to have noted benefit both immediately following a class and over the long term. Many of my patients have told me they feel like going to the cycling class is like taking a dose of their dopamine replacement medication,” said Dr. McKee.

“If you have an illness or disease, the correct type and dosage of exercise can be extremely complementary to other medications and treatments. If you do not have an illness or disease, the benefits of exercise can be neuro, cardiac, pulmonary and orthopedically protective as well as quality and longevity of life supportive,” said Ballenger.

Currently, the Intermountain Pedaling for Parkinson’s classes are held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 3 pm in the Intermountain Park City Live Well Center. To participate, it is recommended that patients seek approval from their physicians beforehand.

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