Bicycling and other exercise may help curb Parkinson’s symptoms

Note from Jason: Chuck is a client (and doing great)!

Parkinson's exercise

Six years after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Chuck Linderman does his daily exercise at a rowing facility in Alexandria. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Well before sunup, Chuck Linderman launches his daily workout at the Alexandria boat house: 30 minutes pulling hard on a Concept 2 rowing machine, an equal stint lifting free weights and 30 minutes pedaling a stationary bike. He drives himself to sweaty, breathless exhaustion, for Linderman is training for the race of his life — a race against Parkinson’s disease.

Linderman is one of a million Americans afflicted by this neurodegenerative disease that kills off the brain cells responsible for the body’s ability to move. His diagnosis came six years ago, when his wife noticed that his right arm was moving weirdly and that he was having trouble fastening the top button on his dress shirts. His doctor recommended seeing a neurologist.

“It took the guy less than 15 minutes to make the diagnosis,” said Linderman, 64.

Rowing already played a role in his life. For nearly a decade, he had been active in Alexandria Community Rowing’s masters program. So his response to Parkinson’s was immediate. Fight back with what he knew best: strenuous exercise.

“What is the alternative? A descent into invalidism?” said Linderman, who retired two years ago from his job as director of a power company association.

Exercise of any sort has long been known to be helpful for Parkinson’s. Before the development of effective drug therapy in the ’60s, patients often improved with any exercise, even the act of folding laundry, according to Michael Okun, national medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation, which emphasizes exercise as an important tool to fight the disease.

While today’s pharmacopeia offers patients effective means to allay the disease early on, most of the drugs have serious side effects, which can range from nausea to involuntary movements and memory problems. Many of these medications can lose effectiveness over time.

Much of Linderman’s regimen — daily cycling and hard rowing, plus weight training twice a week with a personal trainer — is just the sort of workout that is intriguing researchers. There is evidence that challenging the muscles through repetitive resistance motion far beyond one’s comfort zone can diminish some symptoms.

Preliminary studies show that after eight weeks of cycling three times a week at a pace high enough to break a sweat and raise the heart rate, some patients can recoup much of their mobility for nearly four weeks. After that, gains disappear unless the patient resumes exercising. While it cannot cure Parkinson’s, heavy-duty exercise shows promise for countering, even delaying, the inability to move that the disease causes.

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