A simple tandem bike ride may have unlocked a treatment for Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that impairs motor skills and speech.
The discovery happened when a biomedical engineer, Jay Alberts, captained a tandem in a 200-mile bike tour of Iowa with a friend who was afflicted with Parkinson's.
At the end of that 2003 bike ride, the tandem's stoker said her hand tremors had stopped at the end of the day.
A couple of years later, Alberts conducted a tandem bicycling experiement with a neurologist who suffered from Parkinson's. Again, his tremors stopped after a 50-mile tandem bike ride.
The findings prompted Alberts to launch a study at the Cleveland Clinic using 10 Parkinson's patients who exercised for one-hour, three days a week for eight weeks. One group rode on the back of a tandem; the other pedaled stationary trainers.
The group on the tandems experienced a 30% improvement in symptoms; two weeks after the study had ended they still showed a 20% improvement. Those on the stationary bikes showed no improvements.
Researchers observed that on their own, the Parkinson's patients pedal at a rate of about 50 to 60 repetitions per minute. Those on the tandem were forced to pedal at 80 – 90 rpms.
Alberts and other researchers have come to believe it's the “forced exercise” of pedaling faster than what's comfortable that sparks the benefits of bicycling to Parkinson's patients, perhaps releasing a chemical in the brain.
The improvements from forced cycling are similar to those gained through medication, without the side effects.
Now researchers at Kent State University and elsewhere are studying the effects of power-assisted stationary bicycles set to pedal at 80 to 90 rpms. Preliminary results show the same improvement to motor functions in the arms, legs and hands.
Interestingly, former pro cyclist Davis Phinney is afflicted with Parkinson's. He sponsors the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson's that raises funds and awareness of the disease, as well as gives guidance to Parkinson's patients.
Chalk this up as yet another one of the benefits to bicycling — stronger heart, lungs, increased muscle tone, weight control and now a viable treatment for Parkinson's. I wonder how many other as-yet undiscovered benefits of bicycling will be discovered.
You can learn more about the forced cycling research at ABC News.