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Coloradans looking to KO Parkinson’s find refuge in the boxing ring

Experts have long understood that exercise can slow progression of the disease. But non-contact boxing has gained particular cachet.

Helen Green shadow boxes with Diego Sermeno-Urroz during her workout on Nov. 13 at The Corner Boxing Club in Boulder. Many Parkinson's patients have embraced the non-contact training as part of their therapy to slow progression of the disease. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Helen Green’s hands tremble as she slowly swaddles each one in long cloth wraps — from the thumb loop to rotations around the wrist, over the knuckles, winding through the fingers and back around the wrist. 

The ritual, made challenging by the tremors of Parkinson’s disease, is the final preparation before she slides her hands into a pair of bright red boxing gloves. It’s also the last thing Green thought she’d be doing at age 77 — working on her jab and footwork to a throbbing backbeat in a Boulder gym. 

Yet there she stands on a recent Saturday morning, bobbing and weaving in a full-hour workout with other Parkinson’s patients — men and women, mostly seniors — who have joined the growing numbers nationwide who embrace the therapeutic benefits of non-contact training in the sweet science. 

They may have come late to the sport, and they may never throw — or take — a punch in competition. But under the direction of a former national women’s amateur champion, they learn and practice the basic movements. With smiles and shared joy, they will their bodies to achieve a combination of balance, coordination, strength and stamina that helps them fend off the ravages of an incurable disease.

“I feel engaged, clear-headed, more focused in general,” Green says. “It’s visceral, the feeling after class. The mind-body thing is more synchronized.”

That said, she certainly never imagined she would find the mind-body thing by immersing herself in the pugilistic arts.

“Hell no,” she laughs as she readies for a challenging hour of exercise at The Corner Boxing Club. “And I’m from the Bronx. Maybe this is bringing out the New York in me.”

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Studies have shown that the movements and training regimen that serves boxing’s most fearsome and accomplished athletes also can bring out the best in those battling to stave off the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, the neurodegenerative condition diagnosed in about 60,000 Americans each year. Nearly 1 million people currently live with the disease, according to the Miami-based Parkinson’s Foundation, which puts the Colorado case estimate at about 11,500.

The disease can lead to both motor and non-motor issues. Among the former, there’s the familiar “rest tremor” in which hands shake, primarily when resting in the lap or dangling at the side while walking. But others include slowness of movement — known as bradykinesia — stiffness and trouble balancing. Non-motor symptoms can be just as vexing: sleep problems, mood and cognitive issues, blood pressure concerns.

Impacts vary widely, but the disease typically worsens with time. Experts say its causes stem from some combination of genetic and environmental components, but the biggest risk factor is age.

And while a variety of theories address exactly why exercise helps, there’s general agreement on the types of exercise that prove beneficial: aerobic, stretching, balance and strength. But the mental exercise involved in learning something new is also critical, says Dr. Rebecca Gilbert, vice president and chief scientific officer for the American Parkinson Disease Association. It could be dance or martial arts or anything that involves teaching the body to move in unfamiliar ways.

“Boxing incorporates a lot of those elements,” Gilbert says, “so that may be why it’s really embraced by the Parkinson’s community.”

Carrie Barry is the founder and head coach of The Corner Boxing Club in Boulder. She’s a former national women’s amateur champion and now works with Parkinson’s patients in a program at the Boulder gym. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A morning in the gym

Like virtually all of the older fighters who filter into The Corner Boxing Club on this Saturday morning, founder, owner and head coach Carrie Barry didn’t come to boxing by design. A promising high school softball player in Detroit, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her senior year and found boxing as a tool for rehabilitation.

Though she went on to play college softball at Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a degree in sports medicine, she made her mark in the ring as a 10-time national amateur champion and captain of Team USA in international competition. Her competitive career came to an abrupt halt in 2011, when she tore her other ACL while aiming for a spot in the 2012 Olympics, which for the first time featured women’s boxing.

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“By the time I tore my second ACL, I think mentally I handled it a lot better,” says Barry, who at 41 still looks in fighting trim. “And it kind of set me up for what I have now in life. If I had gotten to the Olympics, I wouldn’t have this gym today. I wouldn’t have the people I have in my life today. I mean, this is definitely my community.”

She founded the gym to pursue her love for coaching, first as a for-profit venture but more recently as a nonprofit. She was vaguely aware that a major national boxing program for Parkinson’s patients — Rock Steady Boxing out of Indianapolis — was growing, but her plan, in addition to training fighters, was to offer a general, senior-oriented program.

“I feel like in this country we put so much emphasis on our youth and our kids,” Barry says. “But we really missed an opportunity to take care of our seniors. And I really wanted to make sure that we have a piece in this gym that takes care of them.”

The Parkinson Association of the Rockies reached out to her, and they teamed up for a while, but eventually Barry decided to take her program in its own direction. Basically, she treats her Parkinson’s classes the way she would any other athletes, by determining what they need to succeed and then coaching them accordingly. Participants sign up for the classes on a sliding scale, ranging from zero to $100 per month, based on ability to pay.

UNITE TO FIGHT: Boxers from The Corner Boxing Club will put on exhibition fights as a fundraiser for a variety of charities on Saturday night at the Boulder Theater. Click here to learn more.

Surrounded by walls plastered with fight posters, iconic photos and motivational words (“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was,” from Muhammad Ali), draped with flags lending an international flavor, Barry tailors the warmup to the participants’ variable range of movement. She urges them to use their voices — loudly — because speech is another element that can be impacted by the disease. Volunteers jump in where they’re needed, and on Saturdays some physical therapy students from the University of Colorado set up stations that feature exercises designed to help with skills like balance and coordination.

Rich, left, who asked to use only his first name, works on his jabs with volunteer Ryan Kim, who presents padded mitts as targets during a session of non-contact boxing. The workout has been used successfully as therapy for Parkinson’s patients and has gained momentum both nationally and in Colorado. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

All of the athletes involved with the gym’s competitive team must volunteer with at least one of two senior-oriented programs — Rusty Gloves for the senior population at large and the Parkinson’s group, which also includes older adults who may be rehabilitating from surgery or some other medical issue.

“It gave me a generation-to-generation mentorship built into the program,” Barry says.

Like much of life in general, COVID set the program back as everyone dealt with the pandemic. But the Parkinson’s classes that attracted about two dozen people, and as many as 10 volunteers, three times a week have been slowly bouncing back. On this weekend morning, about 10 people attend, aided by a handful of volunteers who put them through the warmup exercises — slow, deliberate movements that coordinate footwork and punches.

“Reach! … Punch! …” shouts the volunteer, and the boxers repeat the words and mirror the activity.

“Louder!” Barry urges.

Everyone pairs off for some agility exercises before they shift into boxing-specific drills, throwing jabs into the air as they move across the floor. After a water break, they “glove up” for shadow boxing with their partner as the workout unfolds in 3-minute rounds — like an actual competition — with pumped-up jams fueling activity and each round signaled by a bell. A few of the boxers pair up with volunteers who strap on a body shield to absorb punches.

In the elevated main ring, a man named Rich — he asks to use only his first name because of his concern that some people have misconceptions about Parkinson’s — shadow boxes with a physical therapy student. A few rounds later, he pairs with another volunteer, 18-year-old Ryan Kim, who holds up padded mitts to catch Rich’s jabs and an occasional right cross.

As Rich, 63, focuses intently on the targets and snaps his punches with authority, a dark sweat stain grows around the collar of his T-shirt with each round. Like some other Parkinson’s patients, his diagnosis came only after doctors first mistakenly attributed his loss of movement to something else — in his case, a broken right arm suffered in a bike accident. 

Once he began to learn about the disease, he realized — after “moping around the house for a few months” — that he needed to find an exercise outlet to address both his physical symptoms and the moodiness and depression that had fallen over him. 

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“So my wife said you’ve got to start dancing, or boxing, because they want you to keep moving,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘OK, I’ll start boxing.’ So I came down here. I was terrified, because at the time I had severe bradykinesia. I could barely use my right arm.”

Now he attends the classes two to three times a week and credits Barry’s instruction and the workout, physical therapy and communion with other Parkinson’s patients with improving many aspects of his health. From the succession of stretches to learning to throw different combinations of punches, Rich finds everyday applications built into the movements demanded in the gym.

Take footwork, he says. Boxing teaches you to never cross your feet, which for people with Parkinson’s translates to greater stability and balance as the sport’s lessons become second nature. But he particularly appreciates how the intensity of the workout combines with the technique and strategy to stimulate cognitive function and neuroplasticity — essentially, the brain’s ability to rewire itself.  

“You’re always moving and thinking,” Rich says. “It’s like playing chess, except somebody can hit you. So that movement, along with the thinking and reacting to what they’re telling you to do when you hit the mitts and targets, it’s all hand-eye (coordination) and neuroplasticity building.”

Dennis Wanebo works on balance with physical therapist Kristen Kirby at a station during a workout for Parkinson’s patients as part of therapy that has had success in slowing symptoms of the disease. Wanebo doesn’t have Parkinson’s but he started attending The Corner Boxing Club in Boulder with his wife, who was diagnosed nearly five years ago. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Behind the Parkinson’s-boxing connection

Asked where the connection between boxing and Parkinson’s began, some experts point to a program founded on friendship and intuition. In 2006, a former Indiana prosecutor founded the nonprofit Rock Steady Boxing, which grew out of his diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s disease at age 40. 

One of his friends, a former Golden Gloves amateur boxer, designed an exercise program based largely on a hunch that only later would be supported by medical research. The program grew quickly and soon developed its own brand of training for affiliates. Currently, Rock Steady Boxing claims 819 locations, with affiliates in all 50 states plus 18 countries and territories. In Colorado, it has three gyms along the Front Range and two on the Western Slope.

“When RSB first started in 2006, there was no medical evidence to support the program,” says Sara Roque, the organization’s affiliate services director. “Now, fast forward 15 years, and there are neurologists ‘prescribing’ Rock Steady Boxing to their patients. I think the idea of boxing is attractive to many RSB fighters because when they walk into class, they’re athletes and not patients.”

While Rock Steady Boxing is the best-known entity offering boxing classes for people with Parkinson’s, the American Parkinson Disease Association’s Gilbert notes that many other variations on the theme of boxing as therapy exist.

“There is a bit of variety in terms of how the classes may be structured in different places, and who the trainers are,” Gilbert said. “So you want to do a little bit of an investigation about what’s available in your area so that you’re getting something that fits your needs.”

John Lumia warms up during his boxing session Nov. 13 at The Corner Boxing Club in Boulder. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Parkinson Association of the Rockies lists non-contact boxing classes across the state. 

Parkinson’s patients who show continuous improvement or stabilized motor scores also tend to show improvement in their exercise program, notes Dr. Jeanne Feuerstein, movement disorders specialist and assistant professor of neurology at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

A stagnant exercise program can lead to worsening motor scores. That underscores the importance of continually challenging oneself, she adds.

Feuerstein says she often tells patients that a diagnosis of Parkinson’s can signal an opportunity to try new things and refocus their lives. Boxing may not be what they initially had in mind, but the variability of movement in the workouts can prove both physically challenging and cognitively demanding.

The group workouts can also help alleviate another common symptom of Parkinson’s — apathy, which can be particularly difficult to treat. Boxing workouts tend to be especially engaging. There’s some data — small studies, Feuerstein allows — that show problems with apathy and depression and general quality of life can be improved through boxing, something also seen in dance exercise. 

“It’s really good for folks who have motivation problems, so anybody who’s falling into those categories, it’s something I suggest,” she says. “And what’s also nice about it is that in itself the workout is varied, as opposed to the need to do a lot of different types of exercises throughout the week.”

Deborah Noland, right, throws a punch at volunteer Diego Sermeno-Urroz during a class at The Corner Boxing Club in Boulder. Although the workouts are essentially non-contact, participants have the opportunity to land some blows to mitts held by their partners. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lael Montgomery, a 68-year-old retired district court judge and former prosecutor, got her Parkinson’s diagnosis in January 2017. After doing some research on the best exercise programs for her condition, she settled on spin classes and a venture into boxing. She was so effusive after the first few sessions at The Corner Boxing Club that her husband, Dennis Wanebo, joined her — and got hooked.

“This reassociates you with the world, with the ground, with your legs,” Wanebo says. “To some extent, it’s like meditation, actually. Although it’s a meditation that gets your heart rate through the roof.”

For Montgomery, the combination of spin classes and boxing has halted the progression of the disease. That’s been enough to keep her coming — although a recent biking accident has put her out of commission for a while.

Although she claims she was never graceful — “just kind of klutzy” — she enjoys the boxing workouts so much that she wishes she’d discovered them when she was 35. 

“It’s like trying to learn how to salsa,” Montgomery says. “Put your left foot here and then your left hand there and then the weight backward, forward. I mean, it was mentally so challenging for a person who was not innately athletic or graceful. 

“And boxing done right is really like dancing.”

Hand wraps and boxing gloves are removed after a workout for people with Parkinson’s disease who find they can benefit from the non-contact training at The Corner Boxing Club in Boulder. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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