The active and progressive treatment of using boxing to combat the effects of Parkinson’s Disease — and it is working
It’s 1:00 and the icy winds and snow sail past the frosted glass on the storefront window. Men and women shuffle into a health club for a workout on a day when the wind chill temperature is minus 10. Most of this troop are in their late fifties or sixties. A couple of folks are over seventy. Yet, a few are in the late forties with one outlier is well into his 80s. This isn’t a regular fitness group for seniors or a yoga class. This is a boxing class. Men and women using boxing to push off one of the most debilitating diseases that hit older people — Parkinson’s. This neurological disease affects over 5 million people worldwide. 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the US. There is no cure for Parkinson’s at this time. The Center for Disease Control as listed it has the 14th leading cause of death in the United States.
Parkinson’s is when a person’s brain stops producing the neurotransmitter called dopamine. This chemical is released by the neurons or nerve cells to signal other nerves. The brain has several distinct pathways for dopamine. When 60 to 80% of dopamine-producing cells are damaged and do not produce enough dopamine, the symptoms of Parkinson’s appear. Parkinson’s disease generally reveals itself with the beginning of tremors or motor imbalance. It may start with changes in posture, walking difficulties, or facial expressions that begin to get blank. As the disease progresses, the symptoms become worse. There may be an increase of tremors or a rigidity that begins to affect or take over a limb of the body. Walking becomes a problem. Day-to-day tasks become much more difficult. The turning point for many is hitting what is stage-three Parkinson’s. This involves the loss of balance that affects the ability to live alone or impairs normal living activities such as dressing or eating.
How can boxing affect Parkinson’s? As early as the 1980s, various studies showed that rigorous exercise — exercise that emphasized gross motor skills or larger movement/coordination skills that involved arms, legs, or the entire body favorably impacted a range of motion, flexibility, posture and core strength helped to improve symptoms. Most recently, studies in a Cleveland clinic zeroed in on the concept of intense “forced’ exercise — exercise that induces neuroprotection in the brain so there is an actual slowing or progression of the disease. In 2006, an Indianapolis-based non-profit gym started a program that addressed and supported the rigorous exercise routines to test out the theories.
Not like a typical workout, this exercise emphasizes gross motor skills, movement, balance, rhythm and eye-hand coordination that impact motion, flexibility, gait as well as other activities used for daily living. Boxing takes all of these into account and seems to provide a framework for neuro-protection and possibly growth or regeneration. Boxing entails endurance, strength, power and agility as well as training for eye-hand coordination and the ability to react appropriately to strategic situations. Boxing improves balance by forcing a reaction to stimuli to improve balance and stability by forcing movements on all planes of motion. They use jumping, punching and this increase of movement that has all the muscles firing at once. When stacked against other sports, the demands of boxing make it one of the toughest workouts a person can do. It is harder than football, baseball, hockey or cycling. Studies show that boxing when compared to 60 other sports across a continuum of 10 categories (including endurance, agility, hand-eye coordination, analytic aptitude, drive and flexibility), boxing is the toughest sport around.
The value of the exercise has been corroborated by several studies by many large and international universities. Studies show that the effects of the disease can be slowed, stopped, put into remission and in some cases, started the promotion of neuro-restoration. It is a therapy that is gaining lots of traction and growing. Because of the very promising results that have been seen, many organizations are opting to partner in with the research, to be part of the study, or start rigorous exercise programs. Chicago’s Edgewater Fitness is the Chicago area for RockSteady Boxing with is one of these progressive new programs.
To be clear — this is non-contact boxing. This is safe. No one gets punched or hurt, but the workout is rigorous. It stresses coordination and looks to build endurance. The program works for many for a number of reasons. First, there is science behind it but there is also a community-building aspect to the program. People in the program feel safe. They are able to participate in all aspects and they are looking to see the results. This is not a program that one just checks into. It is work and people get invested in it. The people in the program are encouraging and positive — while not a traditional exercise program, the activities encompassed instill a sense of drive into the participants. The program works with building quality of life issues. Many who participate in the program see results and feel that the program helps them to maintain a better quality of life. Many, Parkinson patients see their life becoming smaller and invisible. While in the program, they may have Parkinson’s but they see themselves as a fighter. The training gets the individual to push harder, to be tougher than they would imagine and perhaps that is the secret of success. When people step into the class, they are yelled at by a coach. They are no longer a person with Parkinson’s or made to feel like they have Parkinson’s. They are or become a boxer in training — they are a fighter. This is boxing. They get pumped up and they begin to push back against the disease.
They work with others who also have the disease and there is a camaraderie built among people who have the disease. This makes the program different from other senior exercise programs. The community and the coaches become invested in seeing results. The coaches are trained specifically in dealing with the many aspects of Parkinson’s and adjust the workouts to work on specifics of the disease. The program strives to give the participant their mental and physical courage back. There is stretching for stiffness, footwork for balance and punching to steady the tremors. This is not a quiet zen class like yoga. There is shouting to combat the “soft-voice” syndrome and sparing to work on coordination.
Currently, Chicago has two outlets for RockSteady Boxing classes. The first is RockSteady Windy City which has locations at the Edgewater Fitness at 1106 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue in Chicago and also at Ravenswood Fitness Center at 1958 W. Montrose Ave. Classes are held at a number of times during the week. These locations were founded by Jim Kroeger the owner of both facilities. Kroeger himself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013 and is very active in the classes. Coach Eric Johnson, who runs the program, is an exercise specialist who specializes in working with people who have chronic diseases. He has developed exercise programs for people with Parkinson’s for over six-year. Together with coaches John Magallanex and John Winogrocki, the four form the nucleus for the city’s RockSteady Boxing program in the city. More information can be found on their website at www.rocksteadyboxingwindycity.com or at 312.465.3921
On the North Shore, Rocksteady Boxing is held at the Falcon Boxing Gym at 3090 North Lake Terrace Road in Glenview. Daniel Falcon is the owner of the facility. Their phone number is (847) 998-1760. For more information about RockSteady on the North Shore, go to http://www.falconboxinggym.com/page/fbg-home
In the western suburbs, RockSteady Boxing can be found at HealthTrack, 875 Roosevelt Road in Glen Ellyn and is run by Susan Eichensehr & Mark Andersen. Their phone is 630.205.0137. More information about their program can be found at http://www.rsbchicago.com