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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
“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
“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
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 email@example.com).
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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