The sport of boxing has come under some scrutiny lately. Between the connection of head trauma to the neurodegenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the death last year of champion boxer Muhammad Ali from Parkinson’s disease, the debate has grown about the safety of the sport. While there is currently no known specific cause of Parkinson’s disease and no effective treatment, research studies have linked an increased risk of getting Parkinson’s to mild to moderate head trauma. The research also suggests that the risk increases with repeated trauma. So why would a Parkinson’s patient want to sign up for boxing lessons?
Exercise has been proven to help slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms like tremors and muscle spasms and rigidity, but boxing? As it turns out it can be helpful, but it’s a very specific kind of boxing class. Rock Steady Boxing, which began in Indianapolis in 2006 is a program designed to help patients who have Parkinson’s stay active. The classes are unique in that they don’t involve boxers hitting each other, or sparring. Heavy bags and speed bags are used by participants to work on their balance and movement. Boxing involves eye-hand coordination as well as footwork and upper body movement so it’s suited to patients who need to get large muscle groups moving.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Pete Schmidt, from The National Parkinson Foundation stated, "The brain is a lazy organ. It has figured out a way to do the things you do routinely with the lowest possible energy. What you want to do is keep your brain as a dynamic organ, and not as a static organ. The way you keep it dynamic is by making it do new things.” While staying mentally active with games like chess or cards, or doing word puzzles is good, with Parkinson’s especially, it’s getting the muscles moving in a way that takes concentration and physical effort that’s the real key. Schmidt cited a 2014 study from Northwestern University that showed how beneficial exercise is.
Boxing is complex both physically and mentally since fighters must think ahead as well as coordinate strategy with muscle movement. Former Marion County (Indiana) Prosecutor, Scott C. Newman, who is living with Parkinson’s founded Rock Steady a few years after being diagnosed. Since then it has grown from one small gym with six fighters, to 280 locations in 44 states and 12 countries. It’s also set up as a non-profit charity, with events and classes that raise money for Parkinson’s research.
According to the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research website, a 2011 study on boxing showed that coordination and gait in patients with Parkinson’s was improved after training in boxing moves that were non-contact. While multiple studies have already shown the benefit of regular exercise, it seems that boxing has found many fans. Some experts believe that increased levels of dopamine are the reason exercise provides a benefit to Parkinson’s patients and boxing could be boosting that as well as most patients report feeling more confident after a class. While it’s not the first thing many would think of in terms of holding off the progression of Parkinson’s, the benefits are certainly shown in the brave boxers who decide to give it a try. Check out the video below to see some of them in action.