Can Indoor Cycling Improve Parkinson's Disease?

Yes, you can pedal away from movement problems and toward better brain function.

You’ve probably heard that exercise is good for your brain. Done regularly, it may even help protect you from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Now, research suggests that exercise and cycling, in particular, actually may reduce symptoms such as tremors, slowness of movement, and gait problems in those who already have Parkinson’s disease.

In other words, it appears that people with Parkinson’s, a chronic, progressive movement disorder that affects 1 million people in the U.S., can (literally) pedal away some of their symptoms!


Benefits for the Body

Research at the Cleveland Clinic found that riding a stationary bicycle improves symptoms in people with Parkinson’s, and faster pedaling (or cadence) rates are associated with even more positive effects. In a 2009 study, when people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease pedaled at a rate that was 30 percent faster (at a cadence between 80 and 90 RPMs) than their preferred rate during sessions with a trainer three times a week for eight weeks, their scores on measures of motor function improved by 35 percent and their bimanual dexterity improved significantly, too; those who pedaled at their naturally preferred rate of 60 RPMs didn’t gain such improvements.

Meanwhile, in a 2015 study at Rowan University in New Jersey, researchers found that after people with Parkinson’s disease performed a single cycling session for 30 minutes with 15-second intervals at a high speed and a low resistance, their coordination and mobility improved while walking.

The theory, according to the Cleveland Clinic researchers, is that faster pedaling requires more neuromuscular signaling between the muscles and the brain, which results in better reception of dopamine at the cellular level. (This is significant because a shortage of the brain chemical dopamine leads to the movement problems that are associated with Parkinson’s, according to the National Institutes of Health.)  

Benefits for the Brain

Cycling can also affect brain function, including cognitive task performance, directly. Another body of research found that executive function—including working memory, planning, reasoning, problem solving, and coordinating other cognitive abilities—improved in people with Parkinson’s after cycling sessions.

While it’s normal for people’s performance to suffer when they try to do two or more things at the same time, people with Parkinson’s usually experience a greater drop in their ability to carry out motor tasks while multitasking than their neurologically healthy peers do. But new research found that cycling can produce the opposite effect. A 2015 study from the University of Florida, Gainesville, found that people with Parkinson’s increased their cycling speed while they were doing cognitive tasks even when they were doing two cognitive tasks at the same time. That alone was surprising but what was really eye opening is that those with Parkinson’s performed better on the dual tasks while cycling, the opposite of what happened with their healthy peers.

The benefits of cycling are so impressive that the American Council on Exercise now offers Parkinson’s-specific training programs for indoor cycling coaches. These programs are similar to traditional cycling classes but there’s more of an emphasis on pace or RPMs with low to moderate resistance on the bike. While not a cure for Parkinson’s, indoor cycling has been found to improve specific symptoms and perhaps slow progression of the disease—which is pretty amazing, considering the activity doesn’t carry the side effects that medications do. Now that’s pedal power! 

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