‘I Have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s Doesn’t Have Me’

Posted in Community, Health & Fitness, More Stories

BY STEVE BURR
PHOTOS BY DAVID WELTON
Whidbey Life Magazine Guest Contributor
August 24, 2016

A few months ago I learned that I have Parkinson’s disease (PD). It’s a neurodegenerative condition in which the brain cells that control movement begin to die.

Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder that makes it hard to walk, talk, balance and move. Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with PD each year. The cause isn’t known, although in my case it’s speculated that exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam with the U.S. Army may be to blame. There’s no way to know for sure. Currently there’s no cure for PD.

So what can someone with PD do if they’d rather fight than lie down and accept becoming gradually disabled?

Hand-wraps protect the boxer's knuckles and wrists

Hand-wraps protect the boxer’s knuckles and wrists

Some studies support the idea that intense exercise increases neuroplasticity in the brain. In other words, it keeps brain cells healthy. Non-contact boxing training is a nontraditional form of exercise recently used by some patients with PD. Exercises based on boxing drills enhance the specific physical abilities that tend to become lost with PD and they help build confidence.

Agility practice improves the boxer’s balance.

Agility practice improves the boxer’s balance. (Author Steve Burr works on agility drills with gym owner Dakota Stone)

I first learned about the benefits of boxing for a person with Parkinson’s (PwP) from a feature on the TV program “Sunday Morning” on CBS. As a college student in the early 1960’s (and probably influenced by the phenomenal Muhammad Ali), I took boxing as a Phys Ed elective and really enjoyed it. Fifty years later, the idea that putting on gloves again might delay the onset of my PD symptoms was irresistible. Count me in!

Boxing requires movement in all planes of motion while continuously adjusting for changes in the routine during the workout. Exercising by walking on a treadmill, spinning or weight training is very different. Boxers are well-conditioned athletes because of the diversity of exercises they do to become good fighters. They work on balance, focus, agility, hand-eye coordination, speed, endurance and strength.

 Work on the "heavy" and "speed" bags alternates in 2-minute intervals, with 30-second recovery breaks. (Steve in the foreground works the speed bag while John works a heavy bag while be coached by Dakota).

Work on the “heavy” and “speed” bags alternates in 2-minute intervals, with 30-second recovery breaks. (Burr in the foreground works the speed bag while John Raabe works a heavy bag while be coached by Stone).

PwPs tend to struggle with these abilities. However, with boxing training, anyone, at any level of PD, can actually lessen their symptoms and lead healthier, happier lives.

So what about the science behind boxing’s relationship to PD? A two-year study by Dr. Stephanie Combs-Miller at the University of Indianapolis’ College of Health Sciences produced the first scientific evidence that multifaceted boxing training is more effective than conventional modes of exercise in helping PwPs maintain or even improve physical ability and quality of life.

John works the heavy bag.

Raabe works the heavy bag with Dakota coaching his form.

We studied people over a two-year period who participated in boxing and we didn’t see any progression of the disease in the people that boxed…In fact, in some cases, they were better after the two-year period of time. Their function was better.

 Physical Therapist Sue Taves consulted with Solid Stone Boxing to develop this community-based fitness class for people with Parkinson's disease.

Physical Therapist Sue Taves consulted with Solid Stone Boxing to develop this community-based fitness class for people with Parkinson’s disease. (Ed Wootton “pulls rope,” a core stabilizing drill with Stone (foreground) and Taves (background).

Dr. Combs-Miller said the high intensity exercises can be neuro-protective.

It enhances the uptake of dopamine in the brain. It can improve growth of neurons…All the evidence we have now shows that with exercise, particularly high-intensity exercise, we can improve strength. We can improve a person’s walking ability, balance, and their quality of life. And likely, we’re also seeing changes within the brain as well.

Dakota's training approach features individualized instruction.

Stone’s training approach features individualized instruction. (Gary Vallat learns how to throw punches in his first class).

I could hardly believe my good fortune when I learned that I could participate in a boxing program like this at a location very close to home. Boxing fitness classes for PwPs are now offered twice a week at Solid Stone Boxing Gym at Ken’s Korner in Clinton. Taught by founder-owner and professional boxer Dakota Stone with her staff of instructors, these special classes are assisted by Sue Taves, a physical therapist at Lone Lake Physical Therapy.

Stone smiles at the end of a workout.

Stone smiles at the end of a workout.

Two months after joining the class, my experience is even better than I could have imagined! The sharp crack and sensation of slamming my gloved fists deep into the heavy bag feels like I’m getting even. Steadily improving my technique on the speed bag, ramping-up the staccato tempo feels like I’m gaining. Relentlessly closing in on my sparring partner, bobbing and weaving around the ring, feels like a metaphor for facing down PD.

Non-contact sparring sessions in the regulation boxing ring tax a boxer’s balance, focus, agility, hand-eye coordination, speed, endurance and strength.

Non-contact sparring sessions in the regulation boxing ring tax a boxer’s balance, focus, agility, hand-eye coordination, speed, endurance and strength. (Burr training with Stone in the ring).

By exercising with coaches who “know the ropes,” and supported by the camaraderie of classmates who understand what we’re struggling with, PwPs can fight back and begin to realize that although they have Parkinson’s, Parkinson’s doesn’t have them.

The Body Opponent Bag we call "BOB" is a life-like stationary dummy who patiently takes his punishment.

The Body Opponent Bag we call “BOB” is a life-like stationary dummy who patiently takes his punishment.

So far numbering seven determined pugilists, this unusual boxing club has chosen for itself a distinctive moniker: the “Rope-a-Dopas.” This unique title references the most commonly prescribed Parkinson’s disease medication, LDOPA-CDOPA, and the classic “rope-a-dope” fighting style Muhammad Ali used to defeat George Foreman at the “Rumble in the Jungle,” their legendary 1974 slug-fest in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali, using a protected stance, lay against the ropes, causing much of the energy from Foreman’s punches to be absorbed by the ropes’ elasticity rather than his body. Ali’s plan worked.  Eventually Foreman “punched himself out” and Ali triumphed.

During class, the boxer's safety and well-being is carefully attended to.

During class, the boxer’s safety and well-being is carefully attended to. The BOB not so much. (Wootton gives a right to to BOB with Taves looking on)

Boxing fitness classes for men and women with Parkinson’s are now offered twice a week at Solid Stone Boxing Gym at Ken’s Korner in Clinton, WA. If you’re not sure the class is right for you, you are welcome to observe a class first.

For information about the Parkinson’s boxing program described in this article, call Solid Stone Boxing Gym at 360.341.2292.

Boxers Comments

“After boxing two days a week for a couple of months, I visited my neurologist for a thorough evaluation of my motor functions, including walking, balance and speech. All have shown improvement for the first time since my diagnosis 13+ years ago.” Ed Wootton

This is how we fight Parkinson's!

This is how we fight Parkinson’s! (Wootton send the bag flying).

“It seems any kind of regular exercise has benefit for Parkinson’s. The added benefit of boxing is the variety of exercises, including multiple cross-over moves, lateral movements, balance and coordination. It’s like dancing (also a highly regarded movement therapy) with the added reward of being able to hit things.”   — Gary Vallat

Medicine-ball exercises and rope-pull drills work on boxers’ core strength and endurance.

Medicine-ball exercises and rope-pull drills work on boxers’ core strength and endurance. (Vallat follows Stone’s instruction for core drills).

“There is something about getting into a boxing ring that sharpens my focus and quickens my movement.”   — Doug Allderdice

“I was skeptical when I first heard about the boxing program, but figured I’d stop by just to see what’s happening. Planning only to observe, in no time I was hand-wrapped and out in the gym participating. I had a great time and worked up a good sweat! I felt great after the workout. I’m coming back. The camaraderie and encouragement is fantastic!”   — Frank O’Brochta

“I look at these boxing workouts as helpful. Even better if they turn out to be a cure.”   — Bill Wolfman

“I’ve found this boxing program is not only great exercise but great fun.”   — John Raabe

Using "punch mitts" as a target, boxers can put what they're learning to practical use.

Using “punch mitts” as a target, boxers can put what they’re learning to practical use. (Raabe “hitting mitts” in the ring with Stone).

Before putting on gloves, Coach Donna Parsell applies hand-wraps to protect the boxer's knuckles and wrists.

Before putting on gloves, Coach Donna Parsell applies hand-wraps to protect Burr’s knuckles and wrists.

Coach Lauren Coleman helps to monitor progress, providing boxers encouragement and helping them develop correct technique.

Coach Lauren Coleman helps to monitor progress, providing boxers encouragement and helping them develop correct technique. Here Coleman helps select the correct gloves for Burr’s workout.

 Calisthenics help develop boxers’ upper body strength.

Calisthenics help develop boxers’ upper body strength. (Boxers foreground to background, Burr, Raabe, Wootton, Stone, Vallat).

Medicine-ball exercises and rope-pull drills work on boxers’ core strength and endurance.

Medicine-ball exercises and rope-pull drills work on boxers’ core strength and endurance.

Double End Bag drills develop higher level boxing skills: timing, rhythm and punch accuracy.

Double End Bag drills develop higher level boxing skills: timing, rhythm and punch accuracy.

As the one-hour training session progresses, Dakota works with boxers 1-on-1.

As the one-hour training session progresses, Dakota works with boxers one-on-one.

It's "safety first" when entering the ring.

It’s “safety first” when entering the ring.

Ed takes a break from sparring in the ring.

Ed takes a break from sparring in the ring.

More resources:
Stone Boxing Gym
“Sunday Morning” Lesley Stahl on CBS: video and text
Study by Dr. Stephanie Combs-Miller at the University of Indianapolis’ College of Health Sciences
Lone Lake Physical Therapy

Steve Burr supports Healing Circles Langley (http://www.healingcircleslangley.org/) as its volunteer coordinator, is a WhidbeyHealth Hospice volunteer, and a founder/exclusive member (so far) of Seniors Against Trumpism, LLC (425-339-0101 or sburr@fireborne.com).

Jun012016_0802

The author, Steve Burr.

David Welton is a retired cardiologist and WLM photographer, you’ll find him at most South Whidbey community events with his camera.

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Comments

  1. What a fabulous article by Steve Burr! And as a retired freelance writer/editor, I should know. And cheers to Dakota–one WOW of a woman–for providing this therapy.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story Steve. Dakota and Sue have done an amazing job putting this program together and you’ve documented it beautifully!

  3. Inspiring and thank you for sharing this important experience. This is worth sharing throughout our island community. Kudos to all involved.

  4. I read this entire story and am impressed by the content and the photos. Makes me want to take up boxing just to feel good about my body.

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