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His hands wrapped in Title brand gloves, Jeff Henry, age 68, wailed against a cylindrical boxing column.
Small and skinny with thinned brown hair, he crouched as he delivered punches, right, left, right, left, right, left. A burly gym owner shouted “switch!” to the dozen or so participants in this class and Henry moved to a speedbag — those hanging, teardrop-shaped sacks that allow boxers to train their upper body strength and reflexes. Henry did not take his eyes off it as he pummeled it back and forth.
The class ended. Everyone took off their gloves, and the group marked a classmate’s birthday with frosting-coated brownies. Henry clenched the pastry and slowly delivered in his mouth, with patience, his hand trembling.
Like everyone else in this class, he has Parkinson’s disease. “I started to get shakes and tremors, and then I started walking funny. I couldn’t lift up my leg.”
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
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The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
Henry, who owns a dairy farm in Eastern Ohio, attended a cattle convention four years ago and saw a man dragging his leg, the same kind of drag Henry had developed. The man said he had Parkinson’s.
That’s when Henry realized he might have a serious disease. He says dealing with it is now “like a second job.”
His regimen includes attending classes, several times a week, at the VSN Athletic Performance & Fitness Center in Boardman. It is one of more than 800 outposts, nationwide, that offers Rock Steady Boxing, an exercise program, centered on no-contact boxing, for people with Parkinson’s disease.
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
A growing body of research has shown that exercise might help to counter Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain condition in which a deficiency of dopamine can cause stiffness, difficulty with balance and/or uncontrollable body movements. A body slipping out of control leads to an array of secondary symptoms.
Physical activity has been shown to decrease pain, fatigue, depression and mobility loss associated
The disease causes a loss of coordination and agility and physical activity works to refine the capacity for both, counteracting the decline. Also, Parkinson’s can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle that begets other health problems, like increased diminishing heart health. An exercise routine could, naturally, upend this effect.
People who started an exercise regimen of 2.5 hours per week had a slower decline in quality of life compared to those who started later.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the neuroprotective effects of exercise but experiments on lab mice have shown that physical activity seems to stimulate several processes in which the brain maintains essential pathways. In these studies, physical activity was associated with survival and regeneration of cells in brain areas associated with emotion and memory. It also seemed to speed up the metabolism of neurotransmitters.

There is some evidence that physical activity could be preventative for Parkinson’s, which impacts an estimated one million Americans. Large population studies show that people who exercise regularly in their 30s and 40s are less likely to develop the disease.

Results from the Parkinson’s Outcomes Project — a massive study of 13,000 participants in five countries— showed that people who started an exercise regimen of 2.5 hours per week had a slower decline in quality of life compared to those who started later.
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
“You have two options. You can succumb to the disease, Or you tell yourself you have this disease and ‘I am going to do whatever I can to deal with the disease,’ and when you are in good shape, everything is easier.”
—Daniel Corcos, professor of physical therapy and movement sciences at Northwestern University who studies Parkinson’s.
Rock Steady is the biggest name in a growing movement to encourage Parkinson’s patients to get to the gym to spar against cognitive and physical decline.

Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2005 by Scott Newman, an attorney who had developed early-onset Parkinson’s (meaning he was younger than 50 when symptoms began) who found that his boxing training program helped him ease his symptoms. He had input from a former professional boxer.

The program exploded in popularity after it was featured on a CBS Sunday Morning segment in 2015. Connie Fiems, a physical therapist and co-chair of Rock Steady’s Medical Advisory Committee, said that affiliate programs — overseen by a trainer who has completed a course with the national nonprofit —peaked at about 1,000. This has diminished to about 800; some classes never reformed after the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered fitness centers.
“We make it fun, and we make it sport-related and recreational. Boxers have to write juke and jive and sidestep,”
The program consists of more than boxing. The crowd in Boardman worked through stretching, balance, and coordination exercises before stepping into the room of boxing equipment. Two class participants did not even box due to shoulder conditions.

But no-contact boxing is a critical part of the program, both for health and marketing purposes. Boxing training “includes everything folks with Parkinson's require,” said Fiems. “It includes speed, agility, strength, cardiovascular and aerobic conditioning.”

The sport doesn’t just train for strength or the ability to do repetitive motions, but to develop coordination and rapid-fire reaction times, the kind of mind-body connection that Parkinson’s patients are losing.
The fact that  most people have never engaged in boxing has turned out to be a benefit, said Chris Timberlake, Rock Steady’s director of training and education. It’s new to them, so they are open to it, and they don’t face the prospect of comparing their skills pre- and post-Parkinson’s.

“So they walk into the gym and they don't have any preconceived expectations of how well they did it before versus how they're going to do it in the future,” said Timberlake.

Many in the Boardman class, which has about 20 regulars, credit Rock Steady with improvements in their condition. “When I first came in, I had trouble getting out of a chair,” said Henry. “Jumping rope is my main exercise now.”

He said that when he started, he left class feeling sore but he doesn’t now. He thinks conditioning has increased his energy level. “I used to get tired so easily,” he said. “It meant I couldn’t be as sociable.”
“When I first came in, I had trouble getting out of a chair, jumping rope is my main exercise now.”
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
Paula Caldwell, 75, a former nurse and yoga instructor, is one of the instructors and the catalyst for the classes in Boardman. She was diagnosed in 2005. She said people often come to class feeling tired, unsure they will be able to complete it.
“But we almost fly out because we got the endorphins and dopamine being produced, we come out as a different person many times.”
Doug Stine, the owner of the VSN Athletic Performance & Fitness Center, also teaches classes. He said his experience as a Navy medic makes comfortable in a role of helping people manage a medical condition.
The hardest thing is encouraging people to concentrate, to engage with their own coordination.
“People get too comfortable with doing what the next person is doing,”
One important aspect of Rock Steady is that it is social. People meet others struggling through Parkinson’s. Once a month, the Boardman group meets up not to exercise, just to share experiences with symptoms or new medications.

“We have become comrades for fighting this together,” said Caldwell. “We've become our own little unit, like a family. I have the most supportive, loving, wonderful husband. We’ve been married for 50 years this year. But he does not know what it's like to have Parkinson’s. But with boxers, we know.”
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease
The Brain Can
Fight Back
in Parkinson's Disease