“This cannot be. This man has end stage Parkinson’s disease. He is unable to walk,” said Doctor Bastiaan Bloem after a patient at Radboun University Medical Centre in the Netherlands told him he took regular exercise on his bicycle and had cycled six miles just the previous day.
But once the patient showed he really could cycle proficiently – despite being barely able to walk – Dr Bloem was so astounded he took some video clips of the amazing contrast in ability, as the man initially stumbles and falls along a corridor before spinning entirely under control around a car park.
The phenomenon was reported in the April issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, which stated that the patient’s ‘frozen gait’ occurred almost immediately he got off the bicycle.
One reason for the ability to cycle suggested by the report was that the rotating pedals provided an ‘external pacing cue’ not present in walking. Dr Bloem also suggested cycling may be using parts of the patient’s brain not affected by Parkinson’s.
The beneficial effect of cycling on Parkinson’s sufferers is also the study of a trial from the US by Dr Jay Alberts of the Cleveland Clinic. Dr Alberts, an avid cyclist himself, went on a 50 mile tandem ride with a friend who was also a sufferer. Before the ride his friend’s hand was shaking quite violently but afterwards it functioned much more normally. Indeed the trial evidence shows improved motor neurone function for weeks after a spell of cycling. The trials suggested the most improvement for sufferers when they pedalled at 80-90 rpm for around 45 minutes, three times a week.
Researchers say they are unsure as to exactly why sufferers find the effect so beneficial. Dr Roberts commented: “We are just scratching the surface of what’s going on.”
One theory is exercises such as cycling release chemicals beneficial in counteracting the pernicious effects of a disease that attacks the motor functions of the central nervous system. Parkinson’s results in muscle tremor and rigidity as well as mood swings and impairment of some thinking ability. Many Parkinson’s sufferers also go on to develop dementia and the disease, in most cases, has no known cause and there is no known cure.