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A study found that no-contact boxing may benefit people with Parkinson’s disease. Ivan Gener/Stocksy
  • No-contact boxing for people with Parkinson’s disease is growing in popularity for its uncanny applicability to the body systems the disease affects and for its enjoyability.
  • A new study investigating no-contact boxing’s safety and value for people with mild Parkinson’s disease gives the sport high marks.
  • Inactivity can worsen symptoms for people with the disease, so an enjoyable way to work on problem areas is especially welcome.

The sport of boxing has been referred to as the “sweet science.” For people with Parkinson’s disease, the nickname is especially apt, as a new study demonstrates. No-contact boxing has become a popular form of exercise for people with mild Parkinson’s disease.

A small, new study led by Edith Cowan University in Australia found that boxing may benefit people with Parkinson’s disease.

The study’s findings suggest that no-contact boxing is not only safe for people with Parkinson’s disease, but 9 out of 10 people also experienced an improvement in motor control at the end of the study.

No-contact boxing among people with Parkinson’s disease is on the rise. Rock Steady Boxing, a company that operates no-contact boxing gyms worldwide for people with Parkinson’s, reports it has 43,500 clients exercising in 871 programs around the world.

The purpose of the new study is to provide “high-quality feasibility, safety, and efficacy data” on a non-contact boxing training program for Parkinson’s disease.

The small study involved 10 individuals with early-stage Parkinson’s disease (PD) who took part in three distinct five-week blocks of no-contact boxing. They averaged 60 years of age. Each block contained three one-hour sessions each week and active rest periods.

The first block was dedicated to training the technique. The second increased intensity and included high intensity interval training. The final block incorporated cognitive demands during the boxing sequencing.

The study was designed by its authors, particularly exercise researcher Dr. Travis Cruikshank,Ph.D.. All participants were screened, underwent cardiac stress tests, and were closely monitored during exercise sessions.

None of the participants dropped out over the 15-week study, with just four out of 348 sessions missed by individuals due to minor injuries. The boxers’ “opponent” was a piece of training equipment called the “Fightmaster,” which proved so enjoyable that all of the participants bought one of their own to keep exercising at home.

The study was conducted in partnership with the Perron Institute and boxer Rai Fazio. Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and the University of Western Australia assisted in the planning of the study.

“FIGHT-PD: A feasibility study of periodised boxing training for Parkinson disease” is published in PM&R.

“I have undertaken various forms of exercise over the past 10 years in an effort to control my personal battle with PD, and began training with Rai Fazio, a former Australian boxing champion and now eminent fitness trainer,” said the study’s lead author Dr. David Blacker.

“I was immediately impressed that the warmup exercises and posture for boxing seemed to counter the main problems we see in PD. The stooped posture and poorly balanced gait, with small, weak, arm movements is the exact opposite of what a boxer needs to do to make a sequence of punches. Thus, learning correct boxing technique counters the abnormalities seen in PD.”

– Dr. Blacker

“My personal experience with the training, as well as the lack of good data, inspired us to undertake a study,” Dr. Blacker added.

People with Parkinson’s disease may experience stiffness, tremors, and slow movement, and are at risk of falling.

Dr. Christopher R. Watts,Ph.D., Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at the Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences in Texas, said that no-contact boxing might therefore be “ideally suited” for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“Non-contact boxing exercise programs address all of the critical elements of exercise recommended for people with PD, in one packaged program,” said Dr. Watts, who was not involved in the study.

No-contact boxing is also fun and can provide much-needed social interaction in a gym setting where there are other boxers with Parkinson’s disease.

“Boxing training can help to improve hand-eye coordination and reaction times, which are beneficial for people with Parkinson’s. Boxing training can also improve self-confidence and a sense of empowerment,” said Dr. Daniel Truong, a neurologist at The Parkinson’s & Movement Disorder Institute in California, not involved in the study.

“Lack of physical activity can contribute to the progression of Parkinson’s,” explained Dr. Truong. He said that extended periods of being physically inactive can encourage muscle weakness, stiffness, and immobility.

“Physical activity is crucial in managing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and can potentially slow the progression of the disease,” Dr. Truong commented.

“Despite the neurodegenerative nature of the disease, people with Parkinson’s disease retain the ability to adapt to the physical requirements of exercise and improve motor (movement) abilities,” Dr. Watts explained.

“Disease progression can often be substantially slowed by diligent exercise,” said Dr. Craig Horbinski, Ph.D., Director of Neuropathology in the Department of Pathology of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois, who was not involved in the study.

There is also evidence that exercising may offer neuroprotective benefits to people with Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Truong noted that physical activity may increase the production of a key protein — brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — that can protect existing neurons and promote the growth of new ones.

Brain health coach Ryan Glatt noted, “Any neuromotor activity that involves skillful motor learning combined with exercise — from ping pong to boxing — can be helpful for the motor and non-motor symptoms of persons with Parkinson’s Disease.”

No-contact boxing for people with Parkinson’s disease must employ safeguards to prevent injuries.

“All physical activity and exercise poses some sort of risk of injury, so it is important to find classes led by qualified and credentialed fitness professionals or physical therapists,” said Glatt.

“Non-contact boxing is an aerobic exercise that also works on balance, breathing, strength, flexibility, and sensory awareness — all things that are affected by PD,” Dr. Watts explained.

Dr. Truong encouraged boxers with Parkinson’s disease to work with a trainer who can ensure boxing techniques are correctly and safely performed.

Dr. Watts said the good news is that many programs — including world champion boxer Paulie Ayala’s Punching Out Parkinson’s — can be adapted to the needs of the individual boxer.

“[E]ven people with mobility issues who require a wheelchair can participate in these programs,” he noted.