On a bad day, Mark Burek, who has Parkinson’s disease, compares himself to a ball of rubber bands bound so tightly he can’t move his arms and legs.
On those days, the 55-year-old postman from Castleton-on-Hudson also stutters a bit.
But when he gets on a stationary bike, he’s able to outpedal a number of the symptoms that plague him.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008, Burek has been participating in a program called Pedaling for Parkinson’s for about a month and a half.
The program is based on research conducted by neuroscientist Jay Alberts at the Cleveland Clinic, which revealed the simple act of pedaling at a rapid pace could reduce the symptoms of the degenerative nerve disease by 35 percent.
Five local YMCAs began offering Pedaling for Parkinson’s last week, and three more will sign on in October.
“I’ll tell you, I really knew I did something after I did that program,” Burek said.
“There’s something about exercise and what it does to the mechanics of the mind, and it relieved my muscle fatigue and my muscle rigidity.”
Many types of exercise can be helpful to Parkinson’s patients, but cycling appears to provide additional benefits. Studies suggest even after the pedaling regimen is stopped, there are positive changes in brain function that may linger, said Eric Molho, a neurology professor, neurologist and Riley Family Chair in Parkinson’s Disease at the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Albany Medical Center.
“What they’re trying to find out is whether there is something specific about the cycling activity that sort of retrains the brain to sort of improve patients’ mobility and to overcome certain problems they have with walking,” he said, noting that cycling has not been proven to cure the disease or to stop it from progressing.
Molho hasn’t kept track of data on his Parkinson’s patients who are cyclists, but said he recommends cycling on a stationary bike as a safe form of exercise for many afflicted with the disease, even those with limited mobility and balance.
Medications can help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but exercise can do some things medicine can’t, he noted.
“People who exercise sleep better. People who exercise have a better appetite, their moods are better, and those aspects of Parkinson’s disease I have a hard time treating with medicines,” he said.
Burek said riding the stationary bike makes him feel energized and invigorated and gives him a great sense of accomplishment. It also helps with his frame of mind.
“When you’re on the bike, you’re not thinking of Parkinson’s. You’re thinking about going through each and every minute of the exercise, and it takes away your focus on Parkinson’s and puts the focus on your health and your lifestyle change,” he said.
The protocol for Pedaling for Parkinson’s involves pedaling three times a week for an hour each time at 80 to 90 revolutions per minute and between 60 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is roughly 220 beats minus your age.
Anyone between the ages of 30 and 75 who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and has the OK from their doctor is eligible to participate.
Stationary bikes used for the program are equipped with cadence monitors, and participants are provided with heart rate monitors. Those tools are employed for safety reasons and to ensure cyclists are staying within the optimal heart rate and cadence parameters, according to Nancy Gildersleeve, director of healthy living for the Capital District YMCA.
Classes are 60 minutes long and include a 10-minute warmup and 10-minute cooldown.
Participants can join a class at any time, and each cyclist is given an orientation before their first class.
Tom Stephany of Delmar, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in August 2011, cycles outdoors regularly and now plans to make the Pedaling for Parkinson’s program part of his routine.
“The rhythmic motion of pedaling I think for one thing is very beneficial for this disease, to combat its effects, as well as it can be a cardiovascular workout,” the 56-year-old said.
Stephany often rides his bike to do errands around town, but on days when his symptoms flare up, he can have balance problems, so riding a stationary bike is a safe exercise alternative.
But even a bicycle that stays securely in one spot when pedaled isn’t safe for everyone, cautioned Molho. Patients who have trouble getting on and off a bike and those who have medical conditions that prevent them from riding safely should choose other forms of exercise.
Although Molho recommends all his patients participate in some form of exercise, too much of good thing can be detrimental, he cautioned.
“People who have joint mobility problems and arthritis need to sort of graduate it up very gradually and ask their doctor so they don’t hurt their hips, knees, ankles,” he said.