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Rediscovering the basics

Informing rehabilitative exercise through movement

special feature: Energy

Energy: A special feature examining Memorial University’s impact on resource management, human energy, social power, energy and society.


It is widely known in exercise rehabilitation circles that arm cycling is good for neurological recovery. But, how?

Is there an optimal cycling intensity? How long should one cycle?

Arm cycling

Researchers at Memorial’s School of Human Kinetics and Recreation are turning to basic science to find the answers.

Led by Dr. Kevin Power, and financed by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant, Dr. Power and a team of students are working together to test neurological responses to variations in arm cycling.

Tom Richards, a visiting PhD student, arm cycles to collect research data in the human neurophysiology lab.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The aim is to discover evidence-based recommendations to benefit neurological populations, which includes individuals recovering from spinal cord injuries and stroke, and individuals living with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few. Their findings could help individuals regain lost and/or impaired motor function.

Triggering neurological responses

Taking a back to basics science approach, the research team explores one factor at a time.

“For example, we’ve determined through our research that simply rotating the way hands are placed on the handles while arm cycling activates muscle groups differently and triggers different neurological responses,” said Dr. Power.

“So, slight variations in the way arm cycling is executed can have vastly different results.”

“From the beginning of our lives, we are all quadrupeds.” — Dr. Kevin Power

Amongst many factors, the research intends to explore arm cycling speeds, intensities, hand positioning, as well as synchronous versus asynchronous cycling. The researchers have also explored flipping the cycling concept from arms to legs.

“From the beginning of our lives, we are all quadrupeds,” said Dr. Power. “We begin to explore our world by crawling – using co-ordinated movements of our arms and legs. This supports how we know the nervous system is interconnected. There are many connections, including horizontal, vertical, diagonal and parallel connections between our arms and legs.”

Arm and leg connections

In a recent study, students in the lab determined that even while the arms are at rest, if an individual engages in leg cycling, neurological activity is detected in the arms. So, the research determined the part of the brain controlling the arms is activated during leg cycling.

“When we discover something in the lab, we are literally holding in our hands information that no one in the world has ever known,” said Dr. Power. “Now that’s exciting!”

Learn more about Dr. Power’s research in the School of Human Kinetics faculty profile video below.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Power has dreamed of working directly with spinal cord injury patients in a laboratory environment.

Though that dream has yet to be realized, he is optimistic that his current work will one day inform the fields of occupational therapy, physiotherapy, kinesiology, exercise science and rehabilitative medicine for clinical populations, such as those with spinal cord injuries.

“It is my hope we can articulate optimal ways to arm cycle so health-care professionals can prescribe evidence-based exercise, and individuals can effectively work to regain and improve motor functions following injury or disease.”

Since 2012 students have been building on research conducted at the human neurophysiology lab. To date, more than 30 undergraduate, graduate and visiting students have contributed to this research.

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