Call it giving back what a disease takes away.
Parkinson’s disease affects the way a person moves. So Dr. Chris Hass’ research program at the University of Florida’s College of Health and Human Performance is treating the disease with movement; more specifically, it’s an exercise regimen that includes cycling and weight training.
“There are two basic roads you can travel with Parkinson’s disease,” says Hass, 34, who earned his doctorate in biomechanics from UF. “You can either become involved in the research for a cure or focus on improving the quality of life. Through our exercise intervention program, we travel the latter route.”
It was previously a road less traveled.
“Now we know that exercise benefits Parkinson’s patients just like it benefits everyone else,” says Hass. “And there are definite indications that regular exercise lessens the severity of the symptoms and could possibly slow the progression of the disease.”
According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, more than 1.5 million Americans currently have the disease and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.
But it was happenstance that led Hass to focus on the beneficial role of exercise in treating Parkinson’s disease. A high school and college soccer player, Hass was recovering from a career-ending injury while at Georgia Tech and looking for a new low-impact sport to become involved in.
“I started road biking with a friend of mine, Dr. Jay Alberts,” says Hass, whose Master’s from UF is in exercise physiology. “Then we joined a cycling club and the wife of the club’s president had Parkinson’s. And that’s how the interest in Parkinson’s and exercising began.”
In short order, Hass and Alberts began working on a collaborative pilot study on the effects of exercise, such as cycling, on Parkinson’s motor symptoms.
“We are experimenting with the effect of the cadence as well as the intensity of the cycling,” Hass says. “Right now it seems that the greater the cadence, the greater the benefits.”
The addition of weight training to aerobic exercising is also yielding encouraging results.
“In some cases, we’re seeing 200 percent improvement in strength and movement strategy, which is how people use their bodies to lift themselves from a sitting or reclining position to an upright one,” says Hass. “The combination of aerobic exercise and weight training is a way to emphasize overall fitness, cardiovascular and strength, for Parkinson’s patients. This increases their quality of life.”
Alberts will lead a Pedaling for Parkinson’s cycling team for the fifth time in the annual 450-mile Great Bike Ride Across Iowa on July 22-28, 2007. The team will include not only Parkinson’s researchers like Hass and Alberts, but Parkinson’s patients from across the country as well. The Parkinson’s patients will ride normal road bikes, recumbent tricycles or tandem bikes. Riders cover 70-80 miles a day, staying overnight with host families in towns along the route.
“The whole ride is kind of like a traveling circus,” says Hass.
Pedaling for Parkinson’s is a non-profit organization, which was founded by Alberts and Parkinson’s disease patient Cathy Frazier in 2003. Through the ride, the organization raises money for research, patient, and caregiver support.
It was Frazier, that cycling club’s president’s wife, who first inspired Hass and Alberts to become involved in Parkinson’s exercise research. And she also provided him with one of his most memorable results of the effect of exercise on Parkinson’s patients.
“One of the secondary symptoms of Parkinson’s as it progresses is micrographia, which is small, cramped handwriting,” explains Hass. “And Cathy suffered from this. During a stop in a town, Cathy went into a store to buy a birthday card for a friend. Without thinking about it, she wrote a note and signed the card. Then she brought it outside to show us. When we asked her who had written in the card, she proudly told us that she had. Her handwriting was a normal as ours.”
Understandably, this is a powerful anecdote that Hass loves to tell and that continues to inspire him as well.
“I am confident that Parkinson’s patients have a better quality of life through exercise,” says Hass. “We have to keep making progress in treatment. We can’t let these people down.”
Want ToKnow More?
Pedaling for Parkinson’s
National Parkinson Foundation
University of Florida
Movement Disorders Center