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Punching Back Against Parkinson’s

March 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The up-tempo music pulsating from the rehabilitation wing at Life Care Center of Elkhorn doesn’t signal “party time” for physical therapists ending their shift; it signals the start of another Rock Steady Boxing session for people who’ve been knocked down—but not out—by a cruel, insidious, relentless, and incurable foe: Parkinson’s disease.

Gary Johnson, diagnosed with the degenerative movement disorder about 12 years ago when he first got tremors, usually arrives early for an afternoon boxing workout. His wife drives him twice a week from their home in Fort Calhoun to the nursing and rehab facility, where Johnson greets other outpatients who share his struggles.

“I can barely talk,” Johnson says in a whisper. “[Parkinson’s] paralyzes your voice box. I’ve had DBS [deep brain stimulation], which helps with my shaking, but it hasn’t helped my balance. That’s why I come here to boxing.”

Seven men, all past 60 and exhibiting a range of Parkinson’s symptoms from mild to severe, lace up their boxing gloves and take a position on the gym floor around a makeshift boxing ring—a low platform topped with thick brown mats.

But instead of hitting each other, the boxers practice their jabs, uppercuts, and right hooks on freestanding punching bags (including a mannequin-like “body opponent bag” affectionately known by its acronym, BOB).

Coupled with a rigorous calisthenics and aerobic workout led by a Parkinson’s-trained fitness instructor, the hour-long boxing session leaves the boxers sweaty but invigorated.

“This is completely non-contact,” explains Cheri Prince, director of rehabilitation services at Life Care of Elkhorn. “Rock Steady Boxing is a national program that started in Indianapolis and Life Care became a Rock Steady affiliate two years ago. It utilizes the kind of fitness regimen boxers go through.”

Why boxing, of all things, the brutal sport of Muhammad Ali (who also fought Parkinson’s)?

“Boxers have to have speed and great balance, with the ability to move quickly on their feet. Parkinson’s patients struggle with that. Their movements get progressively slower,” Prince says. “Boxers have to be agile and flexible. Parkinson’s patients have trouble with rigidity and lack of flexibility. There are a lot of parallels.”

Paul Jackson

To get their limbs moving and muscles working, trainer Abbie Harvey pushes the group through a series of precise arm and leg stretches, forward and sideways lunges, steps to the front and back, deep knee bends, shoulder pushes off the mats, and jumping jacks.

She then gives the order to start punching, which the boxers perform with surprising ferocity. Their ever-supportive wives, sitting together as a group watching the workout, smile at the sudden burst of power.

Boxers yell out the number of punches or reps to help keep their voices strong. The music adds some fun and socialization to what amounts to a grueling workout.

The benefits of the boxing should not be underestimated. Gary Johnson, who used to work for the National Resource Conservation Service, says his walking and balance are much better.

George Moon, a framing carpenter from North Omaha whose symptoms include the inability to stand up straight, has also experienced progress.

“I noticed improvement in my writing, which was getting smaller. That’s one thing that goes. Since I started boxing here two years ago, my writing is back to normal,” Moon says.

Current research backs up their claims. While drugs manage some symptoms of Parkinson’s, only exercise has proven to actually slow its progression. Proponents of exercise point to another crucial benefit, too.

“Attitude is like 90 percent of the battle and depression is prevalent,” says Julie Pavelka, a nurse practitioner who works directly with Parkinson’s patients at Nebraska Medicine. “Exercise actually promotes stimulation of the neurochemicals, including serotonin and dopamine, that affect mood and emotions. The mood benefits from exercise are very significant.”

George Moon

Perhaps that’s why Paul Jackson and his fellow boxers don’t dwell on the lousy hand dealt to them. They’re not angry; they don’t wallow in self-pity or curse their fate.

“What you can do is take what you’ve got, like exercise and boxing, take the tools you have and try to make the most of them,” says Jackson, who displays only a slight hitch to his gait. “We’re hoping they find a cure, but I know it won’t be in my lifetime.”

For the over 500 Nebraskans diagnosed with Parkinson’s each year (most are seniors), a cure can’t come fast enough.

“We’re in the Parkinson’s belt along with Iowa, North Dakota, and Minnesota,” explains Pavelka, highlighting what researchers suspect: pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers may somehow play a role in contracting the disease.

For people living with Parkinson’s in the Omaha area who wish to focus on their quality of life and forge new friendships, a little boxing ring may be just what the doctor ordered.

Life Care Center of Elkhorn offers Rock Steady Boxing to outpatients every Monday at 4 p.m., and Wednesdays at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sessions cost $10 each, no reservations required. Visit lifecarecenterofelkhorn.com for more information.

George Moon

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of 60 Plus.