Boxing may be the therapy for some Parkinson’s patients

For Sheryl Carian, a 72-year-old retired physician assistant, boxing is a medicine. Ms. Karian, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2020, does not compete or spar, but every Tuesday and Thursday, she trains for one hour at Main Street Boxing and Muay Thai in downtown Houston.

Prior to her diagnosis, Ms. Carian ran, played tennis, and worked in medicine at the Anderson Cancer Center to care for patients. That all changed in the years leading up to his diagnosis in 2020 as he began to have cognitive difficulties and frequent falls. “I can not do what I used to do,” Ms. Karian said after the boxing lesson.

Along with two other participants in the class, Ms. Karian hit a shadow box in the air, led by professional boxer Austin Trout, known as No Doubt Trout. It was part of a program called Rock Steady Boxing, which specializes in contactless boxing training for Parkinson’s patients.

As Mr. Trout called the instructions – “One, two! One, two, slip! ” – Ms. Karian threw various shots, avoided and bowed her head, all this while maintaining a position up to the boxer’s wide legs.

Contactless boxing training has become increasingly popular over the past decade, with 4,000 new gyms appearing before the pandemic hit and more than five million American gloves in 2020, even as the country loses interest in professional boxing. A variety of high-intensity boxing exercises offer a mix of strength and cardiovascular conditioning that improves agility, coordination, and balance, and that can be especially helpful for people with neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by chronic dopamine deficiency, which causes muscle stiffness, chills, difficulty speaking, fatigue, dizziness, and loss of coordination and balance. Patients’ movements often become very slow and small. Falling is a big problem, especially when the symptoms are progressing. And while there is no cure, or even a way to stop the symptoms, practicing contactless boxing seems to offer to slow down the effects and improve patients’ self-confidence.

“If you train in boxing, you will see that your coordination is better, your agility is better, your balance is better,” said Mr. Trout, a former lightweight middleweight champion who has taught Rock Steady for four years. “It’s a physical way to fight Parkinson’s disease.”

Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 by Scott Newman, a prosecutor in Marion County, Ind., Who found that boxing exercises helped him manage the symptoms of early Parkinson’s disease. At first only he and five other patients were training with a former professional boxer, Christy Folmar.

The strangeness of boxing therapy is that they do not lose weight – the sport has the highest rates of concussions and brain damage. While it is not clear that lifelong concussion can cause Parkinson’s disease, it can increase the risk. Muhammad Ali, one of the most cult figures in the sport, developed this condition after a professional career when he took up suffering in the heaviest weight category of his time after a blow.

Participants in Rock Steady classes do not pick up fists; They just throw them away. Ryan Cotton, chief science officer at Rock Steady Boxing, said in the early days, Mr. Newman and Ms. Folmar were working on the plan. Parkinson’s experts at the time recommended focusing on mobility and balance while avoiding overwork. The boxer’s wide posture and center of gravity rotation when shooting the shot looked great for training balance and posture.

“There was a theory that it should work, but there was no scientific evidence,” Dr. Cotton said. “Indeed, science has caught us and now supports many of the things we used to unite.”

Years later, research has shown that many forms of high-intensity exercise, especially boxing, can slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms. Boxing seems to help with other neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and stroke.

Rock Steady has grown to more than 850 affiliate programs in 17 countries with training and certification programs for coaches such as Mr. Trout who want to offer training specifically for people with Parkinson’s disease with varying degrees of symptoms.

When Ms. Carian was diagnosed with the disease, she knew what her future would be like if she were not proactive. She watched her mother for years, who also had Parkinson’s disease, as her quality of life dropped. But he found that boxing helps balance, coordination and mental functioning. “I’m going to do as much as I can before I can,” Ms Karian said.

About half of those with Parkinson’s will fall in a given year, most more than once. Mr. Trout, like many boxing coaches, teaches his students to maintain a stable position while holding hands on the face and arms to protect the body and face.

“This is special training for fall prevention,” said Ben Fung, a physiotherapist in San Diego who specializes in helping patients, including those with Parkinson’s disease, and has experience in mixed martial arts.

Many falls occur when a person is either striving for something, or changing direction or speed. Learning the boxing position will help you maintain balance while raising your arms can protect your body and face from falling injuries.

Participants learn to climb as part of the Rock Steady curriculum. “Standing on the floor is more common than people with Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Cotton, whose father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years after he started working at Rock Steady. “Our boxers are still falling, they just are not paralyzed by fear.”

Less fear can mean less falling. “One of the biggest factors in determining whether someone is at risk of falling is whether or not they are afraid of falling,” said Rebecca Martin, a professor of physiotherapy at Hanover College. Dr. Martin has nothing to do with Rock Steady Boxing, but seeing its effectiveness has prompted him to introduce boxing techniques into his work, which includes leading weekly exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s disease.

A recent study of boxing therapy showed that Parkinson’s patients who exercised twice a week reported fewer falls, increased fall during Covid-19 lock-in, and returned after lifting restrictions and were able to resume exercise. This is what Mr. Trout saw firsthand, as many of his participants – or “fighters” as he calls them – came back from the locks tighter and shaky than before.

Parkinson’s disease also has psychological effects. When patients lose coordination and balance, many begin to rediscover their own abilities and turn to dirt, distancing themselves from friends and family and limiting trips outside the home for fear of falling.

“Parkinson’s disease deprives me of self-confidence,” Ms. Karian said. “You have to work on it to keep it.”

In a recent survey of more than 1,700 people with Parkinson’s disease, nearly three-quarters of Rock Steady Boxing participants said the program had improved their social lives, and more than half said it had helped with fatigue, fear of falling, depression and anxiety.

“Parkinson’s disease is not just a condition that affects motor symptoms such as your movement, walking and talking. “Parkinson’s can also affect people’s moods, forcing them to feel lonely or isolated,” said Daniel Larson, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and one of the researchers. He is also not affiliated with Rock Steady, but said he now often advises boxing to his patients.

For some Mr. Trout fighters, the boxing class is often the only occasion when they leave the house every week. Katie Smith, a retired schoolteacher, says she often felt at ease during her workouts. At Rock Steady Boxing, “they understand and help us come to terms with our different abilities,” he said.

When Mr. Trout’s lesson came to an end, with basic exercises completed, Ms. Carian and the others were silent and focused on what they could, while Mr. Trout encouraged them. Dealing with Parkinson’s effects can be overwhelming, he said, but “they are allowed to step back every time they come to my class.”

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