Fighting Back Against Parkinson’s Disease

“Jab! switch to a cross, follow up with a hook, end with an upper cut. I want to hear you breathing after each punch! Do it again!”

As upbeat music plays in the background, boxers are sweating through their combinations to improve their balance, coordination and focus. Yet these boxers aren’t your everyday athletes; they are people with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Over the last 10 years there have been quite a few headlines suggesting that boxing may help to improve the lives of people with PD.

I attended a class at a nearby university to learn more about boxing classes designed for people with PD. I had the opportunity to speak with participants, trainers, and volunteer medical students. I was really impressed with the intensity of the sessions and the dedication of all the people involved to make it happen.

The first thing that struck me [no pun intended] was that while boxing may provide significant physical and cognitive benefits, it is often the socialization that keeps participants coming back for more.

One participant explained to me that classes help people forget themselves in a welcoming environment. Parkinson’s can be a depressing, debilitating disease. When participants are boxing, they don’t have time to think about their problems. As she put it, “When you put on the gloves, you suddenly think differently. It’s time to punch your way back to health.”

Another participant discussed how boxing can help bring the spark of competition back into a person’s life. He said he used to be a gym rat, and now he is at it once again. He not only participates himself, but also volunteers in classes for people whose condition is more severe. Importantly, he explained, he does this with his brothers and sisters who have the same issues. It is a PD home.

While boxing isn’t a team sport, the participants and trainers work together as a team. The trainers were 110% behind the mission of the class. They believe there are no patients in their classes. There are only boxers. Everyone is greeted with positive energy and the 45-minute workout is serious, although jokes are flying around to make people feel comfortable.

The trainer’s commitment to the boxers is a critical aspect of the program. One trainer was a physical therapist studying for his doctorate, another one was former police officer who has a black belt in jiu-jitsu. The program is overseen by a neurologist, and there are many student volunteers who spot boxers who may have balance issues.

All of the instructors were passionate about what they were doing. They talked about how they have worked to improve the program. For example, they call out the specific boxing punch types according to numbers to keep the combinations simpler to remember.

What began as a game of chess after class has now extended to a support group meeting every other week organized by the boxers themselves. I understand now that it is the camaraderie of the boxers that is the ‘glue’ that keeps this class together – fighting together to knock out PD!