Boxing for fitness takes the fight to Parkinson’s disease
These days, most of us know someone who has Parkinson’s disease, or knows someone, who knows someone with the condition. If you’re reading this article and thinking you’ve never encountered anyone with Parkinson’s, just hold on a minute, because now you have!
For the past eight years I’ve been living with Parkinson’s, a condition that, according to Parkinson’s NSW, affects close to 100,000 people in Australia. When you add in those affected by the condition (family, friends and carers) close to one million people in Australia alone are affected by this disease.
A neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s is caused by the death or deterioration of brain cells that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate movement, coordination and emotional responses. This can lead to motor symptoms such as tremors, slowness of movement (or bradykinesia), muscle rigidity, postural instability, impaired balance or coordination, and problems with speech. There are also non-motor symptoms such as loss of smell, sleep disturbances and mood disorders.
I was 39 when the symptoms first appeared, as a small tremor in my hands and occasionally in my legs. It took 12 months for my doctors to come to the decision that I had early onset Parkinson’s disease (the average age of onset is late 50’s, but three Australians a day under the age of 40 are also diagnosed). Amazingly, this diagnosis was made after months of tests for almost every rare, obscure condition that involved the nervous system. When all of these tests came back negative, they gave me a two-week supply of pills which I was to try, and to provide feedback on. After two weeks I was feeling great! My tremors had calmed and I felt somewhat normal. Turns out that the pills were Parkinson’s medication, so it only stood to reason that I had Parkinson’s disease. Yep, in this day and age, there is still no test for diagnosing Parkinson’s disease. It’s diagnosed by listing your symptoms, eliminating all other possible causes of those symptoms, and trying the medication to see if it helps!
I’ll be honest with you, it’s not much fun. On top of the disease itself and its many symptoms, which vary widely from person to person (they say that once you’ve met one person with Parkinson’s, you’ve met one person with Parkinson’s), the long term use of Parkinson’s medications creates a complex range of side effects, many of which are just as bad as, and sometimes worse than, the disease itself.
In recent years, however, a treatment has emerged that, while not able to cure Parkinson’s, can slow down the progress of the disease and, in some cases, reduce the amount of medication required while improving the sufferers physical symptoms.
Its name? Exercise. Working in the fitness industry, we are familiar with the effect that exercise can have on the brain and body – just look at how it influences mood disorders such as depression (which, incidentally, affects many Parkinson’s sufferers). As a fitness professional, I have often espoused the many benefits of exercising, but nothing prepared me for the effect exercise has had on my Parkinson’s symptoms.
It seems that the old saying ‘use it or lose it’ is especially true of Parkinson’s. If I want to maintain my mobility, decrease the number of falls I experience and generally keep my quality of life at a high level, I need to exercise. It also seems that while a little bit of exercise is good, a lot of exercise is better!
How exercise changes the brain
What happens in the brain to produce these visible benefits? According to the US National Parkinson’s Foundation, researchers at the University of Southern California (Fisher et al.) looked at the brains of the mice that had exercised under conditions parallel to a human treadmill study. The results were very interesting, adding more weight to the argument for exercise as one of the major treatments for Parkinson’s. The study showed that while exercising doesn’t change the amount of dopamine or neurons in the brain, it does increase the efficiency of the brain cells’ use of that dopamine. Further, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh found that exercise reduced the vulnerability of dopamine neurons to damage.
The latest research is indicating that exercise enables our brains to use dopamine more efficiently and increases the number of dopamine receptors (called the D2 receptor), allowing the cells to receive a stronger signal.
What type of exercise?
Of course, the big question is, what is the most effective type of exercise to help a Parkinson’s sufferer slow down the advance of the condition?
In the case of Parkinson’s, one exercise regime that has been getting amazing results is boxing. Of course, I’m not talking about getting into the ring and hitting someone (or worse, getting hit – I know you’re probably thinking about Muhammad Ali). What we are talking about is the ‘art’ of boxing, using focus pads, boxing bags, shadow boxing and all the other skills that a boxer acquires through their intense training. Basically, what you may typically encounter, or deliver, in a boxing for fitness session.
For a Parkinson’s sufferer to get the biggest benefit from exercise, the activity needs to be complex, repetitive and intense. Boxing is all of these things and is in fact one of the hardest, most intense and complex sports you can practice. If you’ve ever spent 30 minutes with a boxing coach and a set of focus pads, you’ll understand! If you haven’t, then you should.
This is where Punchin Parko’s comes into its own. Introduced to Australia in 2015, Punchin Parko’s is the result of founder Adrian Unger (who has been living with Parkinson’s for 13 years) travelling to the US after his diagnosis to try out a boxing program aimed at Parkinson’s sufferers called Rock Steady Boxing. Adrian was so impressed by the program and the benefits that he became its first international affiliate and launched Punchin Parko’s in Australia. Classes are currently held at VT1 Martial Arts Academy in Chatswood, Sydney, and the team at the club have been nothing but supportive. Having access to the great facilities at VT1 has been a boon for Adrian and his Punchin Parko’s participants, and has been one of the reasons for the program’s success.
As many of the participants are older, you may expect the workouts to be fairly short and sweet. You’d expect wrong. Each Punchin Parko’s session lasts for 90 minutes and involves a 15-20 minute warm up and conditioning section, followed by 45-50 minutes of boxing training and a 10-15 minute stretch. A typical session will include push ups, planks, squats and squat jumps, balance and coordination work, boxing techniques, foot work drills and heavy bag work, as well as drills to improve the ability to ‘fall properly’ and get up from the floor (major challenges for Parkinson’s sufferers.)
Of course, the big question is ‘does any of this work?’ Are any of the regular Punchin Parko’s participants finding any benefits from all of their hard work? Adrian tells me that a few of the regulars who originally turned up in wheelchairs are now walking and participating under their own power. That is an amazing turnaround for someone with a degenerative disease! Since I began working with Punchin Parko’s I have noticed a few of the members are getting up off the floor a little easier, balance is improving and the amount of strength they show in exercises like push ups and hitting the heavy bag is also increasing.
Add these improvements to better moods and greater socialisation and you can see how boxing can have such a positive effect on those with this disease.
For me, the effect of taking up boxing and increasing my overall level of exercise has been pretty huge. As someone with a long history in the fitness industry, including teaching lots of group exercise classes, I’m no stranger to spending a lot of time working out. In recent years, however, as my life changed, so did the amount of physical activity that I did. Until fairly recently, I was exercising on just two days a week for a couple of 45-minute resistance training workouts. I now train six days a week, for at least one-and-a-half to two hours a day! I am the fittest, strongest and leanest I have been since my early 30’s (I’m now 48). I had my body fat percentage measured the other day and had a reading of just over 10%!
While that’s all well and good, I have also experienced some other effects that are a lot more interesting. I have reduced my levels of medication, to the extent that some of the side effects of the medication are markedly reduced. My balance has improved (I haven’t fallen over in months), my gait is better and my mind is definitely thinking more clearly.
Thanks to Adrian and Punchin Parko’s, my confidence is up, and I am back teaching exercise classes again after ‘retiring’ six years ago. I have even filmed some workouts for Move123, a company that supplies ‘virtual’ workouts to fitness studios. To top things off, I have found a form of exercise that I love – I would box all day if I could!
Train the Trainer
Punchin Parko’s is developing a Train the Trainers course that will be ready later this year. As you may imagine, it takes a certain skillset to successfully deliver a boxing session to a group of Parkinson’s sufferers, many of whom are older adults. The course is designed to give trainers the know-how to be able to teach basic boxing skills and drills to participants, as well as how to grade participants and work with groups of individuals with a range of Parkinson’s symptoms.
Once you develop the skills needed to teach a group of Punchin Parko’s participants, you’ll discover how much fun these classes are to deliver. Teaching people with Parkinson’s quickly becomes a highlight of your week. What they lack in speed, power and technique, they make up for with enthusiasm and humour. And over time, the improvements you’ll see in them will be incredibly rewarding.
Steve Schiemer has over 25 years' experience in the fitness industry, and has trained fitness professionals in almost 40 countries worldwide. In his 15 years on the international fitness convention circuit he has trained an estimated 350,000 fitness professionals! His specialties include martial arts, aerobics, strength training and flexibility training. His passion is now firmly focused on boxing for fitness and health.