One-two punch to Parkinson's: Patients get relief from boxing therapy

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Jack Kelly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Tribune News Service)
July 23, 2015

PITTSBURGH—Mike Bell went rapidly and smoothly through the combinations of punches as Rich Mushinsky, owner of the Fit4Boxing Club in Hampton, Pennsylvania, called them out, and the boxer slammed hard blows into the punch mitts on Mushinsky's hands.

Bell, 77, a retired physician, didn't begin to box until after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease nine years ago.

Parkinson's is a neurological disorder that affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that passes messages on from one neuron to another. Symptoms include tremors, muscle rigidity and changes in speech and gait.

There is no cure, but symptoms can be reduced by medication and exercise. Almost any exercise is helpful, studies indicate. But many Parkinson's patients say they get the best results from boxing.

“It helps with balance, hand-eye coordination, the tiredness you get with Parkinson's,” Bell said. He learned about the benefits of boxing from an acupuncture specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Shadyside, Pennsylvania.

“I went to see him because I heard acupuncture could help,” Bell said. The ancient healing practice didn't help him, but the specialist had studied in China for a year and said that Parkinson's patients there are helped with boxing and Latin dancing.

“I've always been a boxing fan. I thought this is the thing for me,” Bell said. He began working out three times a week with Mushinsky.

“When I first met him, he was in pretty bad shape,” the club owner said. “From month to month, he kept getting better.”

The vast improvement in Bell's strength and coordination is all the more remarkable because three years ago, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

Doctors “gave me 10 or 15 months (to live),” Bell said. But even during chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he kept working out with Mushinsky. Today he is cancer-free.

The key, Bell said, is not to give in to the disease.

“When symptoms come on, most people want to lie down,” he said. “I've got a heavy bag and a light bag in my basement. When I feel that tiredness, I go down, hit the light bag and the heavy bag, and the feeling goes away.”

As Parkinson's progresses, the shaking worsens, movements slow down, and balance and coordination deteriorate.

“What happens in Parkinson's is dopamine neurons start to die,” said Judy Cameron, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “If we can protect them and make them die slower, that's really going to help.”

About 1 to 2 percent of Americans develop Parkinson's. The risk of contracting the disease roughly doubles for those older than age 60.

Former Marion County, Indiana, prosecutor Scott Newman was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's at age 40. To relieve his frustration and anxiety, he began working out with his friend, former Golden Gloves boxer Vincent Perez.

Soon after beginning intense workouts, Newman noticed a dramatic decrease in his Parkinson's symptoms, and an equally dramatic improvement in his overall physical health. The two friends formed the Rock Steady Boxing Foundation in 2006, and opened a small gym in Indianapolis for Parkinson's patients.

Their clientele grew steadily as other Parkinson's patients also experienced a dramatic reduction in their symptoms. Rock Steady Boxing moved into a 2,400-square-foot gym in 2011 and now has 155 members, ranging in age from 35 to 90.

In 2012, Rock Steady started a weekend training camp to teach coaches, trainers and gym owners from around the country their methods for treating Parkinson's with a non-contact boxing program.

Bell learned about Rock Steady Boxing from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He showed it to Mushinsky, who went on to take the certification course last year, and sent staff member Maria Berexa to get certified in May.

In Indianapolis, Rock Steady offers four classes, depending on the stage of the disease. All involve calisthenics, jumping rope, circuit weight training, exercises to strengthen the core, punching speed bags, heavy bags and mitts worn by instructors. There is no actual fighting with another boxer.

The activities are designed to attack Parkinson's at its most vulnerable neurological points, said Kristy Follmer, a former professional boxer who is head trainer at Rock Steady.

Boxing works better to relieve Parkinson's symptoms because the exercise is intense, Mushinsky said. It involves balance and coordination, as well as strength and endurance, and because the mind is engaged.

“You have to plan out your moves,” he said. “It isn't like riding an exercise bike.”

Mushinsky announced formation of Rock Steady Boxing-Pittsburgh on May 16, and held its first class for Parkinson's patients in June.

Among the class participants, Shadyside resident Ed Wood, 63, was a lawyer until Parkinson's forced him to retire in 2012. “I had fairly significant cognitive problems,” he said. He's been boxing for about two years.

“It's been very helpful because of the intensity,” he said.

Denise Connelly, 56, was a nurse and IT tech before being diagnosed in 2011.

Bonnie Goncar, 59, was forced to close her hair salon when she saw her fine motor skills deteriorate after she got the disease 10 years ago.

“This should be good for my wife,” said Goncar's husband, Dan. “She has no strength because of the tremors. All the movements should help her with balance.”

The recent class on July 2 was just the third explicitly for Parkinson's patients, so neither Connelly nor Goncar has yet seen much improvement.

“The more you exercise, the more protection you get,” Cameron said. “The really good news is you don't have to exercise very hard (to get a substantial benefit).”

Milder forms of exercise that also involve balance and coordination and engage the mind, such as dancing the tango or tai chi, can produce results that approach those of Rock Steady boxing, studies indicate.

A 2012 study conducted by the Oregon Research Institute found that Parkinson's patients who did tai chi twice a week for six months had better balance and control over their movements than those who did weight training or stretching.

Parkinson's patients who rode an exercise bike three times a week for two months at a pace fast enough to break a sweat can regain much of their lost mobility, a researcher for the Cleveland Clinic found.

Most of the hour of the first class on July 2 was spent learning and practicing the six basic punches (left jab, right jab, left hook, right hook, left uppercut, right uppercut) and putting them together in combinations. For the novices, the emphasis was on form. For Wood and Bell, it was on speed.

The class concluded in the ring, where Mushinsky demonstrated how to fall safely.

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