When patients learn they have a disease like Parkinson’s, verbs like fighting and battling are common. It’s true, after all, that whatever normalcy was before symptoms appeared now isn’t a given: it’s fought for. Sparring with Parkinson’s takes on a more literal form with Rock Steady Boxing, though.

THE BEGINNING

The program was founded in 2006 by Scott Newman, a patient with Young Onset Parkinson’s, who, after his diagnosis, began one-on-one intense boxing sessions and noticed improvements in physical health, agility, functional movements and quality of life. Private donations allowed for expansion from a small gym to affiliates in 11 states and three countries outside of America. Initially intended as a program to help people battle young-onset Parkinson’s disease, over the course of several years the program evolved to accommodate and help people at all stages of the disease.

“What makes this better than a regular exercise program is the evidence provided by several medical studies on exercise and Parkinson’s which have concluded that forced intense exercise can slow the progression of Parkinson’s,” says Joellyn Fox, DPT, Lead Therapist at the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Rehab Center/Penn Therapy and Fitness. “In other words, when exercise is done at a volunteer rate, there is less benefit than when exercise is done that pushes or forces someone out of their comfort zone.”

FORCED INTENSE EXERCISE

Boxers undergo a diverse training regimen to achieve the optimal body control it takes to be a good fighter, Ms. Fox says, because they train to improve balance, hand-eye coordination, speed of movement, agility, muscle power, mental focus, and rhythm.

“All of these are important areas to improve given that the decrease of dopamine in the brain, which decreases coordination and will produce motor symptomology of hypokinesia, bradykinesia and changes in gait,” Ms. Fox says.

The strongest study to demonstrate benefit, she says, was published in 2013 by Coombs et al. and was a randomized controlled trial comparing a group boxing training to a traditional group exercise for people with Parkinson’s. This was a 12-week program where people participated in 24-36 sessions (a rate of 2-3 times per week), which were 90 minutes and tested in areas of walking speed, endurance, balance and quality of life. The results showed that only the boxing group showed significant improvements in walking speed and endurance over time.

Further, she says therapists at the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Center who were certified in the RSB Method in August 2013 have implemented techniques into individualized plans of care as well as instituted a group RSB class that meets once a week. Subjective information immediately gathered from all who participate is a gained sense of “power” and “confidence.” Patients have also been more compliant with their home exercises and attendance to group exercise.

“[This] therapy is appropriate for all people with Parkinson’s disease,” Ms. Fox says. “The movement of medicine is that the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease triggers a referral to therapy. This is because of research and the findings that an early-individualized program can help maintain and improve flexibility, strength, posture, balance, gait and a person’s sense of control over the disease. Consider, if you will, ‘prehabiliation.’”