I train people with Parkinson’s Disease. It came about rather accidentally, beginning at the athletic club where I swim. I noticed the slight tremor in the man’s hand as he reached for mine in order to introduce himself. “Coach Rick (our mutual swim coach) told me you used to coach boxing,” he said. “I wonder if you could help me. I have Parkinson’s Disease.”
At the time I was unaware of the connection between Parkinson’s Disease and boxing, specifically the Rock Steady Boxing program that had been developed in Indiana in 2006. But, yes, I had been an assistant coach in a well-known gym in London, England; it was something I must have mentioned to the coach during our conversations, but I had no idea how I could help this man.
A few days later, we were standing together in my outdoor ring. I was holding a set of punching mitts, teaching my new friend the difference between a left jab and a right cross. Boxing is an art, and this was going to take some time. But why was boxing, or the specific movements of boxing training, useful in controlling and reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, a disease with unknown causes that (in very layman’s terms) robs the brain of a chemical transmitter called dopamine?
The purpose of dopamine is to jump the tiny gaps between nerve cells, called synapses, that form our neural highways and transmit signals through our central nervous system that initiate or inhibit specific functions, including movement in our limbs. The reason for the boxing drills is simple: balance, footwork, strength, endurance and hand-eye coordination — all the things that Parkinson’s steals over time — in other words, the basic requirements of a healthy and independent life.
You see, our brain has what is termed neuroplasticity, which means it has the capacity to change, reorganizing itself by forming new brain cells and pathways; evolving, or devolving, throughout our lives, according to what stimuli it is, or is not, exposed to. In other words, we need to keep learning new things. If we stimulate the brain in ways to which it is unaccustomed, like learning a new set of movements, or performing a familiar movement with the non-dominant side (hands or feet), the brain responds by trying to create new neural pathways, and these information highways may, to some extent, take over from the pathways that have been damaged or destroyed by Parkinson’s.
Boxing is by no means the only way to stimulate these new pathways. Dancing the tango or learning to waltz, practicing both the breathing techniques and physical postures of yoga, playing the guitar, throwing a ball with the non-dominant hand, or working with a ‘breathing stick’ (like a pole or broomstick), which is a practice I have developed over the past 10 years — each requires neuroplasticity as the body adapts to a new and precise way of movement while increasing strength, balance, endurance and flexibility. And that is where informed intuition steps in — and by informed intuition, I mean a thorough understanding and knowledge of the various skills and movements. If you are going to coach boxing, you should understand the movements of boxing, from the feet, through the hips to the hands. The same applies to dancing, yoga, walking or breathing exercises — any form of mindful movement. Understanding the tools at your disposal and being able to intuit when and in what circumstances these skills are applicable — when to change things — is the key to training with Parkinson’s. For example, with boxing, when the basic skills have been developed and practiced with the dominant side, say the right hand leading, it’s time to challenge the brain further by switching to the non-dominant side, leading with the left hand. The same applies to throwing a ball, swinging a tennis racket and any number of learned skills. It’s the continual challenge that stimulates neuroplasticity. Keeping the brain pliable, plastic, so to speak.