The Exercise Files: A Fight Worth a Good Punch

Posting for Dr. Hackney this month is Stephanie Combs-Miller, PT, PhD, NCS, ia board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy, educator and researcher at University of Indianapolis. Dr. Combs-Miller has collaborated with Rock Steady Boxing for the past 10 years to build the community-based partnership and to conduct research on the effects of boxing training for people with Parkinson disease.  

Who would have ever thought I would be writing about boxing? I’m that person who hides behind her coat in the movie theater during fight scenes! Luckily, boxing for Parkinson’s disease (PD) is non-contact and a fight worth a good punch. In recent years, boxing programs for people with PD have been popping up all over the United States, many affiliated with Rock Steady Boxing in Indianapolis, IN. This onset of new exercise programs has brought with it many questions about the safety and effectiveness of boxing for PD.

Madeleine E. Hackney, PhD The Exercise Files blogWe are just beginning to understand more about boxing for PD. What I can tell you to date is that participants in our studies have safely completed training and have been able to adhere to the program. And boxing training, like what is done at Rock Steady Boxing, does appear to be effective. Participation in intense boxing training over time is associated with better mobility and better perception of quality of life. This is all very promising, but we still have a lot of work to do to better understand the effects of boxing and how it compares to other types of exercise.

Let’s consider some hard-hitting evidence from an ESPN poll (okay, maybe not so hard-hitting). A panel of experts including scientists, athletes and sports journalists decided that boxing is THE most demanding sport. They reported that collectively boxers need more endurance, strength, power, agility, flexibility and speed than athletes from any other sport. Does this mean that boxing is the best exercise for anyone, including those with Parkinson disease? There actually may not be a right answer to that question. The type of exercise one chooses needs to fit their unique interests and ability. So, why then are so many people with PD choosing to box? Boxing makes for a novel and intriguing exercise choice for many adults with PD. It’s fun, dynamic and different. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to punch Parkinson’s right in the kisser from time to time?

Many boxers have told me that they enjoy the camaraderie with the others in the program and that motivates them to keep going, class after class. That might just be the most critical point here! It may not matter if you box, walk, cycle, dance, or do Tai Chi. What matters is that you find an exercise program that you enjoy and stick with it! And better yet, find others who want to exercise with you and motivate each other to keep going. Just like daily medications, a regular dose of exercise, no matter the type, may be a key ingredient to maintaining health and function over the long haul for those with PD.

It has been exciting to see so many communities develop boxing programs for people with PD. As a physical therapist, I am thankful that many people with PD now have an option for ongoing exercise in their communities. If you are considering boxing, it is important to remember to slowly build up your tolerance to the intensity of the training. Know your physical limits, seek guidance from the coaches and give it your best shot! But regardless of what type of exercise keeps you going back to the gym, by regularly exercising you are likely to give Parkinson’s a good fight.

Dr. Madeleine E. Hackney, Ph.D, is a Research Health Scientist at the Atlanta VA Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation and an Assistant professor of Medicine in the division of General Medicine and Geriatrics at the Emory School of Medicine. She holds a Ph.D. in Movement Science from Washington University and a BFA in Dance from NYU, Tisch School of the Arts and has also been an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer since 2000. Dr. Hackney’s extensive research interests include inquiry into challenging exercise programs–traditional exercise, Tai Chi and partnered tango classes–designed to improve physical function and quality of life in people with PD, older adults and those with serious mental illness. In 2014, she co-founded MDT Education Solutions, which has trained dozens of fitness and allied health professionals how to develop and lead safe, evidence-based exercise programs for people with PD at all stages of the disease, including almost all instructors in the PD Gladiators Metro Atlanta Fitness Network (including the YMCA of Metro Atlanta). She is currently the Research Advisor to PD Gladiators.

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