Boxer Hitting Bag

Fighting parkinson's

People coping with Parkinson's disease may see it as the fight of their lives. For a growing number of Parkinson's patients at a boxing gym in Indianapolis, the fight is quite literally on.

Scott C. Newman, a former Marion County prosecutor, founded Rock Steady Boxing in 2006, a few years after being diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease. The first and only gym of its kind in the nation, Rock Steady offers people with all ranges of the disease a non-contact boxing-based fitness curriculum. Taught by boxers and certified trainers, many of the nearly 200 participants believe the boxing regime (essentially all but exchanged blows) is improving their Parkinson's symptoms.

Now four researchers from the College of Health and Human Sciences are collaborating with a neurologist from Indiana University (IU) to measure the effectiveness of the program. The secret could be in boxing's intensity. "It's the idea of forced exercise," says Jeffrey Haddad, associate professor of health and kinesiology. "If someone exercises intensely beyond their comfort level, a neural-protective effect may delay the progression of the disease."

Haddad, Shirley Rietdyk and Meghan McDonough, also associate professors of health and kinesiology, and Jessica Huber, associate professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences, bring varied expertise to the table. Elizabeth Zauber, assistant professor of clinical neurology at IU Medical Center, works with Parkinson's patients on a daily basis. She's also on the board of directors for Rock Steady.

Rather than a symptom-by-symptom examination, Rietdyk says, this multidimensional research incorporates everything from mobility and balance issues to the cognitive and psychosocial aspects of people living with Parkinson's.

McDonough says, "One of our goals is to look at how those things might play off each other. There seems to be some evidence of psychosocial improvements, but we want to establish that."

McDonough brings a community component that's not typically part of a Parkinson's study seeking to determine better modes of exercise for patients. She's also looking at the role of the group plays (see story on page 28) for both Parkinson's patients and their caretakers.

Though there have been case studies conducted at Rock Steady, this rigorous research will allow for a larger sampling, perhaps offering solutions that address quality-of-life issues.

But what is it about boxing that could ease the pain of Parkinson's patients? "I know what the trainers will tell you," Zauber says. "Parkinson's is a very asymmetric disease, usually affecting one side of the body much more than the other. Because boxing requires throwing fast and strong punches on both sides of the body, patients are getting faster and stronger on that other side."


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