Groundbreaking News: Forced vs. Voluntary Exercise – Which Is Better?
Forced vs. Voluntary
Which Is Better?
(Healingtalks) Scientific discoveries can seem to come out of nowhere, as occurred when Jay L. Alberts, then a Parkinson’s disease researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, mounted a bike with Cathy Frazier, a Parkinson’s patient. The two were riding a bicycle tour across Iowa, hoping to raise awareness of the neuro-degenerative disease and to “show people with Parkinson’s that you don’t have to sit back and let the disease take over your life,” Dr. Alberts said
Something Unexpected Happened
Then something unexpected happened. One of Cathy Frazier’s symptoms was micrographia, a condition in which her handwriting, legible at first, would become smaller and unreadable as she continued to write. After a day of pedaling, she signed a birthday card with no difficulty, her signature “beautifully written,” Dr. Alberts said. She also felt as if she didn’t have Parkinson’s.
Impressed by these results, Dr. Alberts started a series of experiments in which he had Parkinson’s patients ride tandem bicycles. The preliminary results are raising fascinating questions not only about whether exercise can help counteract the disease but also whether intense and forced workouts affect our brains differently than gentler activity, even in those of us who are healthy.
Difference Between Forced vs Voluntary Exercise
Scientists have known for some time that in lab animals, forced and voluntary exercise can lead to different outcomes. Generally, mice and rats enjoy running, so if you put a running wheel in a rodent’s cage, it will hop aboard and run in a voluntary way. But if you place an animal on a treadmill and control the speed so it must keep pace, often with a finger prod or electrical shock, the activity is forced.
Animal Experiments with Forced vs Voluntary Exercise
In animals, the effects on the brain tend to be more beneficial after forced exercise. In one study from 2008, rats forced to run wound up with much more new brain cells after eight weeks than those who only ran voluntarily – and even though the latter animals ran faster! In a similar experiment, mice that were required to exercise on treadmills performed better on cognitive tests than those given voluntary access.
First Human Experiment with Forced vs Voluntary Exercise
Before Dr. Alberts’s work, there had been few human experiments of this kind because no one had known how, ethically, to “force” people to exercise. Dr. Alberts solved that problem by placing volunteers with Parkinson’s on the back seat of a tandem, which had been modified to ensure that the back rider would have to actively pedal. The subject could not just passively let the pedals of the bike turn. First, they had each volunteer ride a solo stationary bicycle at their own pace, often pedaling at a relaxed 60 revolutions per minute.
But on the tandem, the rider in front had been instructed to pedal at a cadence of around 90 r.p.m. and with higher force output or wattage than the patients had produced on their own voluntarily. The result was that the riders in back were forced to pedal harder and faster.
After eight weeks of hour-long sessions of such forced riding, most of the patients showed significant lessening of tremors and better body control, improvements that continued for up to four weeks after they stopped bicycling.
Exciting Brain Health Findings
These findings were exciting because they contrast with some earlier results involving voluntary exercise and Parkinson’s patients. In those experiments, the activity was more localized. Weight training, for instance, led to stronger muscles, and slow walking increased walking speed and endurance. But such regimens typically did not improve Parkinson’s patients’ overall motor control. “They didn’t help people tie their shoes,” Dr. Alberts says.
The forced pedaling regimen, on the other hand, did. Dr. Alberts was led to conclude that the exercise must be affecting the riders’ brains, as well as their muscles, a theory that was substantiated when he used functional M.R.I. machines to see inside their skulls. The scans showed that, compared with Parkinson’s patients who had not ridden, the tandem cyclists’ brains were more active.
Why forced exercise would have a greater effect on brain functioning than gentler regimens isn’t clear. Scientists have speculated that in animal experiments, being forced to work out may cause the release of stress-linked hormones in rodents’ brains, which then prompt various reactions in the cells and tissues. But Dr. Alberts suspects that in Parkinson’s patients, the answer may be simple mathematics. More pedal strokes cause more muscle contractions than fewer pedal strokes, generating more nervous system messages to the brain. There, he thinks, biochemical reactions occur in response to the messages, and the more messages, the greater the response.
Going Outside One’s Comfort Zone
Whether forced exercise would similarly affect healthy brains is unknown.
“It seems likely,” he continues, that intense exercise of any kind should produce comparable brain reactions and “there is data showing that people who exercise intensely have less risk” of developing Parkinson’s and other neurological conditions. So perhaps, if you do not have a tandem bike for two, try cranking up the speed of your solo bike until you are outside your comfort zone.
Dr. Alberts remains most enthused, though, about the implications of his findings for people with Parkinson’s and other brain-related conditions.
Expanding The Program Nationwide
He has partnered with Y.M.C.A.’s in several cities to offer special tandem cycling programs for Parkinson’s patients and is hoping to expand the program nationwide. He is also planning studies with patients who’ve suffered strokes, in hopes that the brain changes following forced exercise could ease the relearning of physical skills.
“This is not a cure” for Parkinson’s or other brain conditions, he cautions. “But it seems to help significantly” with tremors and other symptoms, “and it gives people a chance to be active participants in their own treatment.”
He plans to return to the Iowa bike event next summer, as a representative of a program he founded – Pedaling for Parkinson’s, and he expects to be joined again by Ms. Frazier – enabled to sign her name legibly.
Keywords: forced exercise for parkinson s, should children be forced to exercise, forced exercise for parkinson s disease, forced exercise, voluntary exercise, benefits of exercise, bicycle exercise, stationary bike exercise, involuntary exercise
Based on an article published in the NY Times written by GRETCHEN REYNOLDS