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Cycling against Parkinson’s Ashland YMCA offers class shown to help ‘People with Parkinson’s’

Parkinson’s Disease can’t be cured, but many local fast pedaling classes are bringing a one-third reduction in the symptoms — and helping PWP (People With Parkinson’s) fight the side-effects of isolation and depression.

The workout, done to lively pop music on a stationary spin cycle, is based on the idea of “forced exercise,” where you push your limits about 30 percent more than you would on your own — up to about 80 rpm.

The PWP taking the Ashland YMCA class all report feeling more happy, fit and physically vibrant and, notes Certified Parkinson’s Cycling Coach Curly Dykstra, “Evidence shows that fast-paced cycling can slow the progression of the disease.”

It activates that part of the brain that controls movement, she says, and it’s done at a pace that’s a little uncomfortable.

“It benefits cardio-vascular and non-motor functions and helps with depression, lethargy and apathy that comes with Parkinson’s.”

Parkinson’s Cycling Classes have taken off across the nation and are aimed at symptoms, including tremor, dyskenisia (slow, rigid movement) and leaning forward, says Dykstra, who also teaches a Movement Class for PWP.

Gerontologist Madeline Hill, the creator of Mountain Meadows Retirement Community, says that after a couple months on the spin cycle, the workout helped her with neuroplasticity — that is, it teaches other parts of the brain to take over from parts that are damaged.

“It gets my heart rate up. You can’t do that by running because of the balance issues with Parkinson’s. It gets me sweating and breathing hard,” Hill says. “It slows down the progression of the disease. It’s high intensity and forced, like riding on a tandem bicycle.”

In the class, the leader gradually makes the music tempo faster and faster, increasing the “force” that riders must put out — a feat that is made easier by being surrounded by friends going through the same thing.

“I increase the rpm’s not because I’m mean, but because it works,” Dykstra says.

Cyclist Bill Walker, 75, says, “When I spin, I have so much energy the rest of the day and feel so much better. All exercise helps, but this takes you beyond your comfort level. It takes discipline and that’s what I have to do here. I’m going 100 rpms and just keep going faster and faster.”

The tension on the cycle wheel can be adjusted and, as the class goes on, Dykstra tells them to “turn up the heat.”

Walker, who has been doing it for three months, says, “It’s a lot more fun than being at home.”

Cynde Mitchell, 71, says, “It increases my energy. It gives you a real boost and makes it easier to walk, definitely with better balance. It increases your dopamine levels. It’s really fun, especially with Curly and this great music. It’s not as hard as people think.”

A sweaty Bill Sipfle, 76, says, “It keeps me active and teaches me what I used to do for fun — and for free, before Parkinson’s. I’ve lived as long as I have because I’ve been active.”

Handout literature from the class says, “People who pedal faster tend to strengthen the connection between the thalamus and primary motor cortex, which helps control movement … a key factor in improving motor function and patten of activation in the brain is to pedal at a relatively high rate, greater than 80 rpm.”

One article, by Selene Yeager in Bicycling Magazine, profiles a 62-year-old Seattle woman who started pedaling four hours a day, four to six times a week and then, while walking her dog, “noticed that both her arms were swinging freely, her head was fully rotating and she wasn’t shuffling anymore, both of which seemed impossible 30 days before, so “I stopped and stood there and bawled.”

The class is not for everyone. You must be diagnosed with idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease (idiopathic simply means that the cause is unknown), get medical clearance and monitor your own progress. You can’t have heart problems, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, dementia or other conditions that are contraindicated to exercise. You also must bring a heart monitor. A new class starts every month. You can bring a support person.

Dykstra teaches:

—Cycling, noon to 1 p.m., Fridays, YMCA. It has various fees, depending on membership or scholarship.

—Parkinson’s Movement Class, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., Tuesdays, The Grove, next to Ashland Police Department. Free. You have to be independent with no caregiver and be able to get up and down off the floor.

—Strength and Stretch for Parkinson’s, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m, Wednesdays. The Grove. Free. Ten weeks. Classes at The Grove are sponsored by Parkinson’s Resources of Oregon (see their website for details).

—Similar class, noon to 1 p.m., Thursdays, free, Masonic Lodge, Medford.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.