CHICAGO – For years, researchers have documented the benefits of exercise therapy for patients with neurological and movement disorders. Now, a pilot study shows that boxing may ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Six years ago, retired firefighter Kathryn Renard had trouble walking and had pain in her legs.
“I was trying to go from doctor to doctor to find out what was going on and no one could help,” she said.
It was Parkinson’s disease. For Renard, a former athlete, the diagnosis is something that redefines who she is as a person.
“I realized I’m not physically strong.”
She took up boxing as part of a Parkinson’s Foundation-funded pilot study on its effects on patients.
The program has been developed specifically for people with stage two Parkinson’s—when patients experience symptoms such as tremors, stiffness and difficulty walking.
“No one is going to hit you in the head, and we don’t expect you to hit anyone else in the head. So, this is really the difference here. And even though it’s a fundamental difference, it’s an important difference,” said Dr. Deborah Hall, director of the Parkinson’s Center of Excellence.
Then the boxers followed for three months.
“We found that not only did they improve their motor symptoms, which has been replicated in similar pilot studies, but they also showed improvement in non-motor symptoms, particularly depression,” said study co-author Dr. Abhimanyu Majan, assistant professor of neuroscience at Rush University Medical Center.
They also found a reduction in stress, sleep problems and pain.
And while there has been research on the benefits of community-based exercise programs on motor symptoms for Parkinson’s patients, less has been done on the effects on non-motor symptoms.
“Parkinson’s is actually a very prevalent disorder, and it causes problems with movement and tremors, but it can also cause these non-motor symptoms, which can also affect and debilitate people,” said study co-author Roshni Patel. Author and neurologist at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.
“Every time I got out of there, I felt better,” Renard said.
She says that after each session, she felt a difference not only physically, but mentally and emotionally.
“You really have to focus on your movement. The change in activity stimulates endorphins and dopamine, which we lack in our brains. And so, by the end, you feel energized,” she said.
Researchers say they hope to conduct larger, longer-term studies targeting specific non-motor symptoms such as apathy.