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Science and Innovations

NAU Pilot Study Looks at Benefits of Boxing for Parkinson’s Disease

Melissa Sevigny

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali passed away this summer after living for more than 30 years with Parkinson’s disease. It’s a neurological disorder that affects the way the brain communicates with the body. Some speculate repeated head trauma contributed to Ali’s illness. But except for the contact side of the sport, boxing may slow the progression of the disease. That idea is the foundation of a study led by Northern Arizona University testing the benefits of boxing on people with Parkinson’s.

Buzzers blare in the Pro Edge Boxing Gym in Phoenix as students pummel heavy bags. Gary Jewell warms up on a treadmill. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a year ago.

“Some of the problems that I have: multitasking, feel kinda stiff, not as mobile as I used to be, anxiety,” Jewell says. He’s one of six participants in a pilot study to see if training like a boxer can help with those symptoms.

“The thing about boxing is there’s a strategy to it: two lefts, one right,” he says, “and to concentrate on that, it’s good for the cognition portions of Parkinson’s as well as the physical.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Jewell warms up with physical therapist Linda Denney looking on.

Jewell’s trainer, Santiago Castaneda, holds mitts for him to strike. Jewell takes a boxing stance and holds his gloved fists in a guard position. They bob and weave and circle each other on the mats.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Denney holds a heavy bag for Jewell to hit.

Some research suggests this kind of strategic workout helps the brain use dopamine more efficiently. That’s the chemical that coordinates movement; people with Parkinson’s don’t have enough of it. Physical therapist Linda Denney says any exercise that gets the heart rate up is good for Parkinson’s patients. But she thinks there’s something special about boxing.

“Boxing uses upper extremities, and usually one upper extremity or arm is affected with Parkinson’s,” Denney says. “We feel that the rotation of the upper body is a good facilitator for   movement, and the footwork eventually helps with balance.”

Denney is leading the pilot study out of NAU’s biomedical campus in Phoenix. It’s the first to look at how a typical boxing workout (without the head blows, of course) could improve movement and cognition. “Thinking about hitting the focus mitts of the trainer, counting combinations; they actually have to think while they’re training,” Denney explains.

Chris Castaneda owns the gym in Phoenix where the study participants train. “I don’t do any special things different, I teach them like they’re all going to compete, like they’re all going to fight,” he says.

You just want to fight back the best you can.

And he thinks it’s paying off. “Their walking, punching, stability, eye and hand coordination has improved so much in 3-4 weeks, and I’m eager to see what 6 months to a year would do,” he says.

The buzzer rings. Gary Jewell’s just finished his 30-minute workout. He’s exhausted. But he loves it. When the study’s over he plans to find a gym close to home and continue boxing for his health.

“You just need to fight back,” Jewell says. “Things come along in life that are going to happen, you have to deal with them. You just want to fight back the best you can.”

The study runs for six weeks. If the results are promising, there will be another round of research. More than a dozen people have already queued up to join.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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