Boxing gives Parkinson's patients a puncher's chance

Posted at 5:14 PM, Apr 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-19 17:33:00-04

Parkinson’s is a debilitating neurodegenerative disorder that slowly whittles away the motor control of those diagnosed with the disease. But some patients are fighting back, quite literally. 

According to a large scale clinical study funded by the Parkinson’s Foundation, 2.5 hours of exercise per week can produce a “significant difference on the quality of life for those with Parkinson’s Disease.” Activities like dance, music, swimming, and yoga are frequently recommended, but more recent experience and research has added boxing to that list.

“For people with Parkinson’s, exercise is medicine,” said Patricia Wessels, a physical therapist at Mind Body Physical Therapy in Baltimore. “It can be any exercise that is vigorous and intense. It can be any activity where a person is pushed a little past their exertion. Boxing just happens to be a great fit because it is so demanding.”

After using boxing exercises with a patient who suffered from Parkinson’s, Wessels learned of the Rock Steady Boxing program and traveled to the organization’s home base in Indiana to earn her certification and bring the program east.

Founded in 2006 by Indiana Prosecutor Scott C. Newman, Rock Steady Boxing provides group fitness classes where participants practice noncombat boxing exercises. The drills are designed to improve the physical capabilities Parkinson’s directly attacks - agility, speed, balance, muscle endurance, hand-eye coordination, and motor control.

“The biggest thing that participants seem to tell me is that they get more comfortable with their balance, and I think that’s the biggest issue,” Wessels said. “The more you make the body work and the brain work, the more your going to get good movement and independence. We’re not trying to stop Parkinson’s but we’re trying to slow the progression.” 

Mark Gleger, 63, was one of a half dozen students who came out for a recent Wednesday afternoon class at the Baltimore boxing gym. He’s been training in the program since it’s inception in Baltimore. Gleger feels strongly enough about boxing’s effect on his health that he recommends the class to other Parkinson’s patients and their families.

“It’s a really hard job,” Gleger said after completing a session that lasted more than an hour, “But we have to do this.” 

Though the disease is not fully understood, Parkinson’s affects dopamine-producing, or dopaminergic, cells in the brain, inhibiting the transmission of neural messaging that utilizes dopamine. 

The symptoms of Parkinson’s often appear slowly, growing more pronounced with time. Despite improvements in brain imaging, the disease is not often diagnosed until clear signs are present, including tremors, particularly in the arms and hands, struggling with balance and gait, slowness of movement, and limb rigidity. 

“Exercise has been shown in both lab animals and now the human model, to improve even basic movement skills in people with Parkinson’s at any stage,” Wessels said. “While it’s better to start early with diagnosis, even people in stages three and four can find benefit in regular, vigorous, cardiovascular strength training.”

Rock Steady got it’s footing in Maryland growing out of the Forrest Hill Health and Fitness center in 2011. It’s since expanded to eight locations in the state, including Baltimore, Lutherville, Timonium, Columbia, Severna Park, Fulton, Annapolis, and Forrest Hills. 

About 50,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease each year, according to the National Institute of Health, with about 500,000 people currently living with the condition in the United States.Though Parkinson’s itself isn’t considered fatal, the complications it produces can be detrimental. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed the disease as the 14th leading cause of in 2015.