February 10, 2015

How Exercise -- Like Boxing! -- Benefits People with Parkisnson's

Last week, a story on National Public Radio (NPR) reiterated the importance of exercise for people with Parkinson’s (PWPs).

For the one million Americans with PD, the piece suggests, any kind of exercise is beneficial: boxing, drumming, dancing, tai chi, singing, golfing… in particular, any social activity that stimulates the heart and lungs, lights up the brain, and gets the dopamine flowing.

Dr. Daniel Tarsy -- director of the Parkinson's disease program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston – sees firsthand the benefits that PWPs reap from exercise programs: "I'm a believer. Patients look a lot different walking out an hour later than they did walking in.”

Tarsy says people in these programs finish their workouts feeling freed from "this straitjacket that's called Parkinson's disease. They say, 'I can do this!' And in many of those people it carries over into their everyday life."

His exercise endorsement for PWPs is anything but new.

Power of Tai Chi
Researchers at the University of Oregon concluded in their 2012 study that PWPs who did tai chi twice a week for half a year showed improved balance and movement control, plus a reduced risk of falling, than another group that did stretching and weight training. PWPs who lifted weights had better balance and fewer falls than PWPs who only stretched.

There’s more evidence for tai chi, too. Harvard Medical School’s Peter Wayne used tai chi to study how Parkinsonian brains change after six months of exercise. Wayne thinks of tai chi as “mindful movement,” suspecting it may help patients use undamaged parts of their brains to compensate for the areas that normally control automatic movements like walking.

Wayne said: “Because the movements of tai chi are geared to be upright and moving, they translate a little better into going downstairs and walking the aisles in a supermarket and being able to lift and put things down carefully."

Other recent studies have shown the benefit of cycling and treadmill workouts for PWPs. The greater the physical commitment – especially if there is also a mental component -- the greater the improvement.

The National Parkinson’s Foundation touts the benefits of exercise on its website:
There is a growing consensus among researchers about the short- and long-term benefits of exercise for people with Parkinson's disease. Research has shown that exercise can improve gait, balance tremor, flexibility, grip strength and motor coordination.

And Then There's Boxing
The NPR piece begins with the story of “Rock Steady Boxing,” a program available for PWPs at a gym in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

There, several times a week, a dozen PWPs – from a 46-year-old mother of teenagers to an 84-year-old former phys ed teacher in a wheelchair – strap on boxing gloves and pound away on 100-pound punching bags. They begin their routines with stretching and calisthenics.

Mike Quaglia, one of the regulars, was 42 when he was diagnosed with PD. For the next seven years, his condition deteriorated, in spite of medication. He said, "I was at a point where I was either going to give up and let the Parkinson's take over, or I was going to decide to fight back.”

And so for the past year, Quaglia has been a dutiful participant in the Rock Steady Boxing program. Now, he says he doesn’t need to take his PD meds for six hours after the workouts… twice the normal time. He reports that his depression has lifted, and that he has more self-confidence.

Rich Gingras, the Pawtucket, R.I. gym owner where the boxers work out, cites the therapeutic social element involved for the participating Parkinsonians who might otherwise just be staying home, watching soap operas on TV, and feeling depressed. "They're not moving at all. So ... coming in here and just moving around and being happy — everybody's smiling — it's great!"

You can watch the original NPR story HERE.

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