Boxing program aims to help patients with Parkinson’s Disease

Boxing may seem an unlikely answer to a disease which robs people of their motor skills, and even speech, but the sport requires many of the things Parkinson’s Disease patients need. Training in the sport offers help to delay the onslaught of symptoms the progressive disease causes.

The Rock Steady Boxing Program was recently brought to Oxford as the fourth affiliate of Reid Hospital in Richmond, Ind.

“This is non-contact boxing with bags and gloves. It is full-body fitness class with cardio and weightlifting,” Program Manager Matthew Wright said. “It uses the slogan Fighting Back Against Parkinson’s.”

The program is conducted at 8 a.m. Wednesday and Friday mornings for an hour in the fieldhouse at the Chestnut Fields parking lot, the former site of Talawanda High School. When Miami purchased the property, the main building was torn down, but the Talawanda fieldhouse was left standing.

Instructor for the Rock Steady program is Keith Woods, a certified head coach who has spent 25 years in geriatrics and has been in this current position for six months. He said he is a medical fitness coach, but not a physical therapist.

“It’s a wonderful program,” he said. “The focus is on physical skills but an unintentional benefit is that it builds camaraderie. They form networks. It’s just happening. We inadvertently became a support group. They talk among themselves.”

Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that progressively attacks the nervous system gradually depriving the sufferer of the ability to move freely and even speak.

Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 in Indianapolis in a tiny gym and has grown to more than 900 affiliates serving more than 50,000 people with Parkinson’s Disease, including affiliates in other countries.

Woods explained the start came about when the district attorney in Indianapolis was diagnosed with the disease.

“Fifteen years ago, there was only a diagnosis and patients were just told to go home and get their life in order,” Woods said, adding the D.A. sat at home, depressed, until a friend who was a boxing coach invited him to come with him to a gym. All of the training for boxing were found to be helpful to Parkinson’s patients. “He started boxing and his mental health improved. Now, there has been a lot of research.”

The Rock Steady Boxing web site explains some of those benefits.

“Contrary to popular belief, boxing does not require that you spar with another person. The discipline, preparation and training for the fight is 99 percent of the process. And at Rock Steady, the only opponent is Parkinson’s disease,” they say on the web site. “Boxing does require hand-eye coordination, speed of movement, agility, footwork, explosive movements, balance, and focus – many of which are impacted by Parkinson’s. At Rock Steady, fighters strengthen these skills and build confidence with the support of a team and coaches trained to understand the complexities of Parkinson’s in a safe and encouraging environment.”

Woods explained the University of Indianapolis has been doing research and tested patients over a two-year period for their gait speed, standing reach and other factors and found improvement over that period. Usually, Parkinson’s parents see a system decline over six months.

“Why boxing? There is no contact, just bags and targets. We are not fighting a person. We are fighting a diagnosis with exercise which releases endorphins, oxygenating the brain,” Woods said. “They studied 600 sports using 15 criteria and it was like boxing was significantly made for Parkinson’s with things like reflexive balance, power, footwork and mental focus and we add in yelling.”

The yelling is a part of the workout, too, as they try to have fun with such things as doing the Twist or a “Monster Walk” with exaggerated steps and shouting.

“We have large movements. We try to go big. We go loud,” Woods said.

Sessions include work on the boxing bags with numbers assigned to the various moves. The trainers tell them to do specific moves by the numbers, requiring mental stimulation. After the boxing work, they do a series of other exercises, including weightlifting, walking sideways down the floor and back and step ups.

The level of work is also a factor and Woods said they “try to push it a little bit.” He gave the example of a patient riding a stationary bike getting some benefit, but said research has found even more benefit from riding a tandem bike with a bicyclist.

Oxford resident Sara Penhale has Parkinson’s Disease and has been taking part in the Rock Steady Boxing Program at Reid Hospital for several years. Last spring, she brought Wright here to speak to a support group she had co-founded. There was interest, so she and her husband, Allan Winkler, approached Dr. David Creamer, the Miami University vice president for finance.

“I have been part of it for several years and have enjoyed the program. I thought there was a need in Oxford, Ohio for a Parkinson’s-specific program. Matt Wright met with the support group,” Penhale said. “They were interested in moving to more areas. This seemed right.”

Creamer was sympathetic to the idea of having an affiliate of Rock Steady Boxing at Miami and put them in touch with people at the Recreation Sports Center. They were interested and spoke at length with the Reid Hospital program representatives. Those talks resulted in the establishment of the Rock Steady Boxing Program here. The first session was Feb. 2.

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