Riding in El Tour de Tucson Provides 'Power Over Parkinson's'
University of Arizona researcher Becky Farley, PhD, isn't out to win the 111-mile mixed tandem race in El Tour de Tucson on Nov. 20 like she did in 1993, but she'll have a winning feeling when she crosses the finish line of the 35-mile event with new tandem partner Sharon Kha, UA associate vice president for communications.
Kha has Parkinson's disease, a condition that can make even the simplest movements difficult, so riding in El Tour was the last thing she expected to be doing this fall. A few training rides with Dr. Farley changed her mind.
"For the hour that I ride with Becky, it's like I'm on vacation from the disease. My legs are pumping and I'm out of breath and I feel like an athlete, not a patient," Kha said.
Kha was diagnosed with Parkinson's less than a year ago, so at this point, her muscles are still functioning well; it's her brain that is sending weak signals. Over time, however, as the brain keeps urging muscles to make less effort, the muscles will weaken. But Dr. Farley -- a physical therapist, neuroscientist and assistant professor in the UA Department of Physiology -- thinks that the kind of regular exercise Kha gets training for El Tour may postpone the most debilitating effects of the disease.
"Growing scientific evidence indicates that regular exercise can help the brain produce its own chemicals that protect the dopamine cells -- the ones that die in Parkinson's disease -- from early death," said Dr. Farley. "Thus, exercise may help the brain produce stronger signals to the muscles and even protect the remaining dopamine cells from the slow progression of the disease.
"The evidence that exercise may be neuroprotective -- in that it may slow the progression of Parkinson's disease -- is a major breakthrough."
Dr. Farley has a $250,000 research grant from the National Institutes of Health to look at the impact of exercise on Parkinson's. But Dr. Farley's interest is more than academic. She believes that people who take charge of their illness by exploring all available health options, not just medications and surgery, actually do better.
She has volunteered many hours with the Arizona Chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association to develop a program called Power Over Parkinson's to get this message out. This free, four-week program is taught by Cynthia Holmes, PhD, a health psychologist at the UA Department of Neurology's Parkinson's Center.
"Physicians who treat people with Parkinson's would do their patients a service if when they write a prescription for medication, they also write a prescription for exercise, for a
mind-body class aimed at reducing stress, or for hands-on therapy like massage,"
Dr. Holmes said. "Power Over Parkinson's is there to help physicians and patients connect with qualified wellness practitioners."