Bellingham biking class brings relief to people with Parkinson's disease

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 19, 2014 

Pedaling for Parkinson's PAD

Rick Hermann's legs are a blur, left, while Christine Engelhardt and Karen Cook get help from instructor Harvey Varga during a Pedaling for Parkinson's class at the YMCA in Bellingham, Monday, May 19, 2014.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

A chance encounter in Africa has led to a new program at Whatcom Family YMCA to help people with Parkinson's disease alleviate their symptoms, including tremors, rigid muscles, slowed movement and poor coordination.

Research indicates that people with the disease can improve their condition by pedaling a bicycle at a sustained rate for 40 to 45 minutes, three times a week. Bicycling, it seems, helps parts of the brain involved with movement work together more effectively.

Bicycling doesn't cure Parkinson's, and people must bike on a regular basis to keep their symptoms somewhat at bay, said Brandis Gunderson, the physical therapist who owns Baker to Bay Physical Therapy and Wellness in Bellingham.

Still, for people with the chronic disease, something that helps them cope better, and that doesn't require medication or surgery, is a blessing indeed.

"It sounds almost too good to be true," said Bellingham resident Karen Cook, 76, who signed up for the "Pedaling for Parkinson's" sessions at the YMCA that began May 5. "It produces up to 35 percent reduction of symptoms."

Gunderson heard about the benefits of bicycling while in Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with people who have Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis. One of the climbers with Parkinson's, Nan Little of Seattle, told her about research into the value of bike riding.

Gunderson wasn't treating clients with Parkinson's, but she knew that YMCAs elsewhere had pedaling programs, so she called Tammy Bennett, the director of healthy living at Whatcom Family YMCA, about a year ago to see if Bellingham might start a class.

"She took it and ran with it," Gunderson said.

COMMUNITY DONATION HELPED

Bennett researched biking programs in Seattle and decided it would be a good fit for Bellingham, but there was a problem. Money.

Stationary bikes with proper monitors cost about $1,500 each, and the YMCA's old bikes couldn't be retrofitted. But when a community member donated enough to pay for four bikes, YMCA board members agreed to pay for eight more, providing one for an instructor and 11 for riders for Parkinson's, Bennett said.

Eight people have signed up for the class so far, with riding sessions from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Each class involves a 10-minute warm-up, 40 minutes of steady cycling, and 10 minutes to cool down.

During the 40 minutes, the goal - based on research - is to pedal at about 90 revolutions per minute, to gain the maximum benefit. That's not a difficult pace for regular riders, but it can be difficult for someone who hasn't exercised much.

"If you're new, holding a pace steady is challenging," Bennett said. "They may be only to hold 90 for only five or six minutes at a time."

Class members work to build up their strength and endurance, with encouragement from the instructor and from other class members.

"Totally doable, with practice," Bennett said.

Class member Karen Cook, a retired college English instructor, has had Parkinson's for about 13 years. She said her tremors are "not that bad," but said the disease can leave her depressed, confused and full of anxiety. She takes medication to help, but there are side effects.

Cook said she has exercised all of her life, but biking specifically for her Parkinson's is new.

"The idea that you can do something to avoid taking more medication all the time is just thrilling," she said.

After her first biking session, Cook had an appointment the next day with a physical therapist to work on her balance.

During therapy the week before the biking class, Cook needed 8.5 seconds to stand up, walk a set distance, then return and sit down, a standard measure for balance and mobility, said her therapist, Elizabeth Hampton at Core Physical Therapy in Fairhaven.

A day after Cook's biking class, her time was 6.8 seconds.

"She was almost a different person as far as her animation, the way her body moved, the way she spoke," Hampton said. "I was really excited."

Cook, understandably, was excited, too.

"This has really given me a tremendous shot of hope," she said.

MORE DETAILS

- To learn about "Pedaling for Parkinson's" at Whatcom Family YMCA, visit 1256 N State St. or call 360-733-8630. The class is free for YMCA members, and a scholarship fund helps people who can't afford membership. More classes can be added if enough people sign up.

- The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research: michaeljfox.org

- Parkinson's Disease Foundation: pdf.org

- Parkinson's Pedallers: parkinsonspedallers.net

- Pedaling for Parkinson's: pedalingforparkinsons.org

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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