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Punching Out Parkinson’s Symptoms: How Boxing Can Help

Deb Hipp
By Deb HippJanuary 4, 2019
Punching Out Parkinson’s Symptoms: How Boxing Can Help

Research indicates that boxing can improve Parkinson’s disease symptoms, helping people diagnosed with the disease maintain higher levels of function and quality of life than those who engaged in other forms of exercise.

Learn more about boxing’s impact on Parkinson’s symptoms, including which workouts are best for seniors with the disease.

How Boxing Can Improve Parkinson’s Symptoms

On a Tuesday afternoon at Rock Steady Boxing in Overland Park, Kansas, 22 people ranging from 50 to 87-years-old break off into groups of three. They’re ready to fight their way through a series of multiple three-minute exercises. Everyone here has Parkinson’s disease, but the rigorous routine isn’t easy.

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In fact, Rock Steady’s workouts are the opposite, based on “forced exercise,” intense exertion that pushes each participant to maintain a higher level of exercise than he or she can typically achieve. Of all sports, boxing is the most demanding, beating out basketball, football, ice hockey, martial arts and wrestling, according to ESPN’s ranking of the degree of sports difficulty.

Rock Steady’s boxing classes gained widespread attention a few years ago after CBS Sunday Morning aired a segment featuring the program’s benefits for people with Parkinson’s. For example, footwork in boxing enhances balance, punching can steady tremors and stretching improves stiffness.

Research indicates that exercise can improve Parkinson’s symptoms. One study found that people with the disease who participated in Rock Steady Boxing maintained higher levels of function and quality of life than those who engaged in other forms of

    exercise.

Anyone diagnosed with Parkinson’s is a candidate for Rock Steady, says Executive Director of Rock Steady Boxing, Joyce Johnson, based in Indianapolis. The boxing program, which offers different class levels based on abilities, is also an equal opportunity workout.

Many women who sign up for Rock Steady can’t imagine pulling on a pair of boxing gloves, but once they get started, they love it. “Some of them become more ferocious than the guys,” says Johnson.

Why Boxing Is a Formidable Opponent Against the Disease

The Rock Steady Boxing program is the largest of its kind, with 723 United States affiliates, plus programs in 14 other countries. Instructors complete a certification process with Rock Steady, which developed its exercise program with oversight on exercise and safety from neurologists and physical therapists.

Participants don’t box with each other, and Rock Steady instructors aren’t out to train prizefighters. They’re dedicated to helping people with Parkinson’s get back some control over their bodies and reduce the disease’s myriad of symptoms.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects around one million people in the U.S. The disease can cause balance and gait problems, limb rigidity, slowness of movement and tremors. Someone with Parkinson’s may develop tightened skin that masks emotions or have trouble walking. As the disease progresses, the person might drool or have a soft voice due to decreased ability to speak.

Many people with Parkinson’s stop socializing because they’re embarrassed about their symptoms or weary of explaining to others. At Rock Steady’s boxing classes, though, no one minds another person’s unsteady gait or quiet voice.

“When someone comes to Rock Steady, everybody has Parkinson’s,” says Johnson. “Everyone here knows that you didn’t always have that disease.”

Workouts Designed for Parkinson’s Symptoms

In the Overland Park class, to the pounding beat of 60s rock classics, a man rotates a 25-pound weight above his head to improve shoulder mobility. A woman stands and sits repeatedly while lifting heavy ropes and slapping them against the floor.

That posture exercise can help her with things like opening the refrigerator door, a simple household task that can seem impossible for some people with Parkinson’s.

Each exercise is designed to improve movement abilities affected by the disease. Sets of pushups build upper arm and body strength. That way, if someone falls, he or she is more likely to be able to get back up. Jumping rope improves the ability to land on both feet simultaneously, another difficult movement.

“We pride ourselves on working with different symptoms like balance, hand-eye coordination, strength and the ability to reach forward and not fall over,” says Johnson. “We do a lot of walking around mazes because even in a parking lot, you have to step over things.”

After 45 high-intensity minutes, class members head for their bags. It’s time to put on the gloves. For the rest of class, men and women alike jab and punch at both air-filled speed bags and heavy bags for hand-eye coordination and strength. Some hit the bags hard. Others tap the side, doing their best despite impaired movement. Boxers use their voices too, yelling “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 Ha!” or “Jab, jab, cross, reset, step back!” to activate cognitive function, sequencing and voice.

The oldest participant in the class, 87-year-old Esther Herriott, started boxing one year ago when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Before taking the class, Herriott, who attends five days a week, “zig-zagged” when she walked, she says. Sometimes, she fell. Not anymore.

“Since I started coming here, I’m so much better,” says Herriott, who struggles with pushup exercises but excels on the lateral weight machine. “I walk straighter and I can think clearer. I love coming here. This is like a big family. You can talk openly about your disease, but not in a way where you’re feeling sorry for yourself.”

Many in the Rock Steady program experience dramatic improvements. One man living with Parkinson’s for 20 years had to steady himself with a walker when he began the Overland Park class two years ago. Two months into the program, he stowed the walker in the closet. He no longer needs it.

“It’s the best gift I’ve ever given myself,” says another class member, Carol, who’s had Parkinson’s for 15 years and been coming to classes for two years. “Now when I fall, I can get back up.”

Johnson likes to tell the story of a man who once played college basketball for Purdue University. “When he came to Rock Steady, he couldn’t even throw a basketball over his head,” says Johnson. “One day, he told me that he’d just made five baskets in a row. You can imagine what this did for his emotions and feelings about himself.”

Of all the benefits gained by those who take boxing classes, the social aspect rates high. “We have people in their 70s and 80s, at that time in life when everybody around them is dying and going away,” says Johnson. “Here’s a whole new group of people they get to see two or three times a week.”

Have you, a parent or senior loved one seen an improvement in Parkinson’s symptoms after boxing? We’d like to hear your experiences and stories in the comments below.

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Deb Hipp
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Deb Hipp

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