If you are one of the over 1 million Americans with Parkinson’s disease (or are close to one of them!), you may have heard of boxing as a way to reduce, slow, and even reverse symptoms.
When we think of exercises for people with serious illnesses, we probably think of things like walking and mild aerobics, so perhaps this workout solution has taken you by surprise. Why boxing, anyway?
Let’s take a look at why this fun and intense form of exercise has been working wonders for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.
How Boxing Helps
As Parkinson’s disease progresses, people typically have an increasingly hard time with the following activities:
- Navigating obstacles (such as coffee tables, etc)
- Maintaining control over their limbs
This neurodegenerative disorder can impact almost every one of your day-to-day activities. In fact, not only the day’s activities are impacted; some patients report sleep disruptions as well.
Since all of this can be hard to cope with, depression is also sometimes an aspect of Parkinson’s disease.
A Strong Opponent
The reason boxing is so effective against these symptoms is that it serves to strengthen almost all the areas that the disease weakens:
- Motor skills
- Sensory function
“I think that type of exercise where you’re getting aerobic activity, you’re working on balance. That’s one thing we do know that helps with keeping the Parkinson’s from progressing as quickly,” UW Medicine Neurosurgeon Andrew Ko said.
Unlike exercises that don’t actively engage your brain (for example, walking), boxing is full of quick reactions and precisely placed movements. The sport simultaneously engages the body and brain, which helps keep the boxer on his or her toes–literally and figuratively!
Fighting a Non-Contact Battle
The key difference between professional boxers and boxers with Parkinson’s disease is that the latter group isn’t training to enter the ring! Like many other trainers across the country, these Parkinson’s patients don’t plan on hitting anything/anyone other than a punching bag.
The contact aspect of boxing can be detrimental to anyone’s health, including young and healthy professionals. In fact, some neurologists believe that legendary boxer Muhammad Ali’s lifetime of head trauma contributed to his eventual diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s very hard to point in almost any individual case to what’s causing the Parkinson’s,” said Todd Sherer, the chief executive of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. “But there’s pretty convincing data that head injury can increase your risk for developing the disease.”
So–unlike Ali–anyone boxing for the sake of diminishing and even reversing the progression of their Parkinson’s disease would never box against another individual. After all, they’re already fighting for the best cause out there: their own health!
Rock Steady Boxing
You may be thinking it’d be a challenge for most Parkinson’s patients to join a boxing gym. Not only do they have the host of concerns that come with their disease, but most are also over the age of 60.
That’s why classes specially formulated to fit Parkinson’s patients’ needs are springing up everywhere! The most noteworthy is Rock Steady Boxing, our nation’s first gym dedicated to the fight against Parkinson’s.
The nonprofit organization’s website offers the following description of its groundbreaking classes:
“In our gym, exercises are largely adapted from boxing drills. Boxers condition for optimal agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength to defend against and overcome opponents. At RSB, Parkinson’s disease is the opponent. Exercises vary in purpose and form but share one common trait: they are rigorous and intended to extend the perceived capabilities of the participant.”
Rock Steady Boxing goes on to cite studies supporting the concept of “forced” exercise and its capability to be neuro-protective, slowing down disease progression. The boxing program was founded in 2006 by Parkinson’s warrior Scott C. Newman and has been very successful. If you’d like to check out a class, there is a location in Orlando.
Boxing has already improved the lives of countless Parkinson’s patients.
It took awhile (and three different neurologists!) before Taylors, SC resident Ira Paulk learned that his frequent falls, constant fatigue, and shuffling feet were due to Parkinson’s disease. The diagnosis was a shock to Paulk, but he was proactive from the very beginning.
“[The doctors] said, if you don’t get up and move around and work your limbs and everything, you will become an invalid. So I said I’m going to fight it until my last breath,” the 70-year-old insurance agent told The Greenville News.
Paulk is fighting his disease literally, in the form of hour-long boxing classes designed especially for individuals with Parkinson’s.
Though he’s still taking medication, Paulk says it’s the classes that have really done the trick. Since he started the boxing regimen, he feels “a thousand percent better.” The father of five and grandfather of nine has gained:
- Muscle tone
- Lots more energy
“I have not fallen one time, well maybe once, since I began. I sleep better and don’t take naps anymore. And I can stay awake through the whole sermon on Sunday. I look like the Ira of old,” he said cheerfully.
Suzanne Taitingfong and Roland Campbell
Suzanne Taitingfong, age 60, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease back in 2010, and at the time boxing wasn’t even on her radar of potential workouts or hobbies.
However, when the mother of three heard that fellow Parkinson’s patients were having successful reactions to boxing, she was open-minded.
“I said, ‘Well I’m willing to give it a try,’” Taitingfong reasoned.
Not only did she “try,” but Taitingfong became a pioneer in the world of boxing for Parkinson’s patients. Her phone call to former professional boxer Brett Summers resulted in an entire new program at Summers’ Arlington, WA gym.
Summers was passionate about the program from the start, since his uncle Roland Campbell is also living with Parkinson’s disease. Campbell attends his nephew’s classes along with Taitingfong and what’s become a large group of other loyal participants.
Taitingfong, Campbell and their boxing classmates have experienced a slew of positive results. Perhaps most noteworthy is Campbell’s restored ability to walk backwards, something his doctors all said he’d never do again.
This is just one of the many reasons Taitingfong firmly believes “Boxing and Parkinson’s is a match made in heaven.”
You may already know there is not yet a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Treatments are typically implemented to help control the symptoms, and a surgery called “deep brain stimulation” is available as well.
Part of the reason why it’s so imperative to treat the symptoms is the lack of a cure. According to Dr. Kathleen Woschkolup, a neurologist with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System who runs a multi-disciplinary clinic for Parkinson’s patients, “[Boxing] is a great exercise regimen and it has a lot of research backing it. Patients have really good results in terms of motor systems … and they maintain the improvement they get longer.”
We are working hard here at Avail to test better treatments and eventually even help find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. In fact, we are currently enrolling a few more participants in our Parkinson’s clinical trials! If you or a loved one is living with this currently incurable disease, why not do everything you can to alleviate the symptoms and one day discover a cure? From boxing classes to clinical trials, there is hope on the horizon.