CHICAGO — For years, researchers have documented the therapeutic benefits of exercise for patients with neurological and movement disorders. Now, a pilot study shows that boxing may ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s.
About six years ago, retired firefighter Catherine Renar was having difficulty walking and developed pain in her feet.
“I was trying going from doctor to doctor, trying to figure out what was going on and nobody could quite figure it out,” she said.
It was Parkinson’s disease. The diagnosis for Renar, a former athlete, was something that redefined who she was as a person.
“I have come to terms with I am not as physically strong as I once was.”
She took up boxing as part of a Parkinson’s Foundation-funded pilot study on its impact on patients.
The program was modified specifically for people with stage two Parkinson’s—when patients have symptoms like tremors, rigidity and difficulty walking.
“No one's going to hit you in the head, and we don't expect you to hit anybody else in the head. So, that is really the difference here. And although it's a basic difference, it's an important difference,” said Dr. Deborah Hall, director of the Parkinson's Disease Center of Excellence.
The boxers were then followed for three months.
“We found was that they not only had improvement in their motor symptoms, which has been shown before again in similar pilot studies, but also they had improvement in non-motor symptoms, especially depression,” said study co-author Dr. Abhimanyu Mahajan an assistant professor of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical Center.
They also found decreases in anxiety, sleep problems and pain.
And while there have been studies on the benefits of community-based exercise programs on motor symptoms for Parkinson’s patients, less has been done on the impacts on non-motor symptoms.
“Parkinson's is actually a very widespread disorder, and it can cause problems with movement and tremor, but it can also cause these non-motor symptoms, which can be just as impactful and debilitating for people,” said Roshni Patel, the study’s co-author, and a neurologist at the Jessie Brown VA Medical Center.
“Every time I left there I was in a better mood,” said Renar.
She says she felt a difference after each session not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.
“You have to really concentrate on your moves. The change-up of movements stimulates the endorphins and the dopamine, which is what we're lacking in our brains. And so, by the end of it, you feel energized,” she said.
Researchers say they hope to do larger, longer-term studies that also target specific non-motor symptoms like apathy.