Speeding up to slow down Parkinson’s disease

MIAMI – Claire Hackett, a retired dietitian, never saw herself as a “jock.”

But at 77, the Palmetto Bay, Fla., mother of seven is enrolled in a twice-weekly indoor cycling class at the UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center west of downtown Miami. She walks the treadmill and takes yoga classes at the Y and takes chair yoga and music therapy classes at her local park.

She’s got a new bag, too. A punching bag. “I’ve also taken up boxing,” Hackett said.

The origin of all this activity can be traced back seven years, when Hackett was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that affects about 1.5 million Americans, according to the National Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Parkinson’s, for which there currently is no cure, is characterized by the loss of dopamine neurons in the brain stem.

As Parkinson’s progresses, motor and non-motor skills may decline, leading to rigidity and gait disorders, tremor and cognitive loss. High-profile patients like former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, singer Linda Ronstadt, actor Michael J. Fox, boxing champ Muhammad Ali and former Major League catcher Ben Petrick, who was diagnosed at 22, have put a face to the disease and promoted awareness.

Experts suggest Hackett is on to something with her burst of activity. Some recent studies, including by the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, published in 2008, found that patients with Parkinson’s showed a 35 percent decrease in symptoms after participating in a cycling program. A study in 2012, by researchers at Kent State University’s department of exercise science, also found that exercise and movement therapies benefited patients with Parkinson’s, but there remains little consensus on the optimal mode or intensity of exercise.

“All of this information that is coming in dovetails with what we, the establishment, are promoting with physical therapy or exercise as part of our daily recommendations to our patients,” said Dr. Carlos Singer, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

“Exercise is the hot topic in neurology and the neurology of Parkinson’s disease,” Singer said. “There is evidence coming in that it makes a difference in slowing down the progression of Parkinson’s, and it’s good physically and for cognitive ability – the ability to think clearly and for better memory.”

The doctor’s advice? Get moving.

“Exercise seems to release one of our natural proteins, which is called the growth factor, and the growth factor has an influence on making our brain neurons – the nerve cells – more fortified, with more vigorous connections. That’s one of the theories on why exercise may be working,” Singer said.

Given the medical community’s enthusiasm over the results so far, the National Parkinson’s Foundation partnered with UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center to create a Cycle for Parkinson’s class at the Miami medical venue. The program is free for patients and (space permitting) for their caregivers, funded by a $22,000 grant. Classes are 60 minutes each, twice weekly.

The class is held on stationary bikes. Unlike the Cleveland study, which used tandem bikes in which a patient and a captain are paired on a bike, with the captain generally setting the pace, UHealth’s Cycle for Parkinson’s class offers individual bikes, much like those found in a traditional gym’s class. Patients, guided by trainers, can proceed at their own pace or take a break.

Cycle for Parkinson’s launched with a three-month pilot program in January for about 15 patients and a handful of their caregivers.

The goal, said Brittany Dixson, the Wellness Center’s health fitness specialist: “Improve the quality of life for those with Parkinson’s. We saw improvements. These participants did pre- and post-testing, and they felt better, there were aerobic capacity improvements, some strength improvements. A lot of time with Parkinson’s, they feel alone or isolated, and a group setting gives an aspect of social benefits.”

Hackett, the Palmetto Bay mom, was one of the participants in the 10-week pilot and enrolled in the current program.

“Since I’ve had Parkinson’s, the exercise has helped my symptoms,” Hackett said. “I’m stronger, I have more energy. I’d have difficulties walking with Parkinson’s and fatigue, but the exercise definitely helps that.”