I do not remember when I first heard about the benefits from the sport of boxing for those afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. At first, I was skeptical about a sport that requires you to beat another fighter about the head until they succumb or time runs out. Look what happened to Muhammad Ali: it is estimated that he took more than 29,000 punches to the head during his career.
Subsequently, I learned that with this new method of treatment for PD, there is no live fighting involved, only noncontact traditional training techniques. The utilization of boxing movements and footwork, combined with a variety of punches and boxing strategy, may help slow the advance of Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease of the brain, with many notions of the causes and no cure in sight. It is estimated that more than 10,000,000 people worldwide are living with the burden of Parkinson’s. I was diagnosed in 1993, at the age of 41, and I was deeply shocked when identified as an “early-onset” Parkinsonian. That day of my diagnosis, I was given a life sentence, but looking back now, almost 24 years later, at least it was not a death sentence. The years since my diagnosis have forced me to adapt to this disease by accepting it, accommodating it, prioritizing my life, and fighting back with determination and tenacity.
There are approximately 13,000 people with Parkinson’s (PWP) in British Columbia, all suffering some combination of the four horsemen of PD: limited mobility, lack of balance, body stiffness, and acute tremor. We take a variety of medications to help alleviate the symptoms of PD and to help kick-start that part of the brain that produces the chemical dopamine, which, in turn, powers our nervous system.
However, there are other things that we can do for ourselves besides relying on our meds and attitude to feel somewhat normal. Forced intense exercise is identified as a key component in reducing stress and the effects of Parkinson’s.
Rock Steady Boxing, Inc., a nonprofit organization, was founded in Indianapolis in 2006 by Scott Newman, who was a young-onset PWP at age 39. Since then, word has spread quickly and Rock Steady is now a worldwide organization.
Allie Saks is the head coach and owner of the Rock Steady Boxing affiliate in Vancouver. She is a registered occupational therapist who has experience working with individuals with neurological conditions. She began classes in June 2016 and now offers them three days a week at two downtown gyms.
The classes, strictly for men and women who have Parkinson’s, were designed to lessen or slow the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Boxers train to improve fitness, strength, balance, timing, speed, range of motion, and hand-eye coordination. These are everyday functions that are typically affected by Parkinson’s.
Rock Steady classes are fun and challenging, priced fairly, and strenuous enough to leave you soaked in sweat by the end. Saks is a great motivator and moves throughout the class exhorting everyone to work harder with a smile and positive feedback. She is a pepper pot of energy, and even though her classes are fast-paced and challenging, everyone is encouraged to proceed at their own pace.
Boxing gloves and hand/wrist wraps are provided, and the one-hour classes start with stretching and some stationary bike. Then we split into groups and begin to rotate through four to six rounds of exercise-specific combinations. An example of this might be one person (we usually work in pairs) hitting the heavy bag with a combination of jabs, crosses, overhands, and uppercuts while the other does jumping jacks or planks for one to two minutes per station. The classes end with core work and a cool-down period punctuated by a group cheer.
I feel good for a couple of days after these sessions, and I am probably in my best shape, with more stamina than I had in my 50s.
Another unique feature of Rock Steady is encouragement for the participant to bring a caregiver, a friend, or a family member to the workout as a “corner person”, someone who helps with the transitions and motivates you just by being there.
Equally important, but understated, is the camaraderie that is built within the Rock Steady participants. We get to know our fellow travellers, those comrades in arms who are also carrying this extra load through life. We compare notes regarding our conditions and the different stages and symptoms of our diagnosis, but mostly we just focus on the exercises. This allows us an opportunity for an hour or two each week to forget about it and just commune.
Rock Steady offers four different class levels and has programs for those who use canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Virtually anyone who can get to the gym can participate. Sadly, there are still many PWP who are unable to participate in any physical programs due to their deteriorating condition. These are Parkinsonians who are housebound and in need of full-time caregiving. I would encourage them to keep striving to move, take small steps, try to maintain a positive attitude, and hope for a better day tomorrow.
April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. For more information about Rock Steady, visit their website.