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Fighting Back Against Parkinson’s Disease In The Ring

A promising therapy called “Rock Steady” boxing is giving local Parkinson’s patients new hope as they battle the debilitating disease.

Boxing classes adapted for Parkinson’s patients are now being offered at Paragon Academy in Santa Barbara twice a week.

Nancy McCreary was diagnosed with the central nervous system disorder last summer when she started having tremors, slower movements and began losing her balance.

“Well, it’s a wake up call. But, it’s a fact of life. I’m 4 foot 9 and a half. I have Parkinson’s. It’s a fact. I’m not going to sit around thinking, I’m 4 foot 9. I’ve been that way all my life. Now, I have Parkinson’s. It’s just another fact, so I deal with it,” said McCreary.

McCreary is one of several Parkinson’s patients participating in non-contact boxing classes at Paragon Academy.

“There are hundreds of affiliated gyms of Rock Steady around the country that are doing it and they are seeing great results.”” said Paragon owner Sean Apperson.

Apperson was approached by the Parkinson Association of Santa Barbara after members heard about the program.

Janet Freeman is affiliated with the Parkinson’s Association. Her husband Pope has Parkinson’s and is also learning how to box.

“My husband, who is involved, is 80 years old and just punches his heart out. It’s amazing. I think he’s going to drop and he just keeps going,” Freeman said.

Freeman said there is little data available to show the prevalence of Parkinson’s in Santa Barbara County.

“It’s very disappointing what we really know about the demographic. There is a Parkinson’s registry in California that was approved by the state to do research, but the initiative was never funded,” Freeman said.

There are about 60 active members in the Parkinson’s Association in Santa Barbara.

More than a dozen are now participating in the boxing classes.

“They love it and I felt responsible since I’ve been pushing the program with our group,” Freeman said. “Literally talk about fighting Parkinson’s. I think that’s what it feels like. It feels like this is something we can do.”

In small studies, some patients who took part in the boxing therapy saw profound improvements in their symptoms, including improved mobility and strength.

Doctor Sara Kempe-Mehl is a partner at Central Coast Movement Disorders Specialists in Santa Barbara.

She said regular exercise, like boxing, appears to boost the body’s ability to make its own dopamine.

“In Parkinson’s disease, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is missing. So your neurons that make dopamine are dying too quickly. That’s why people get slowness and stiffness and tremor and walking changes,” Dr. Kempe-Mehl said.

The Parkinson’s boxing group at Paragon is in the early stages of training, but their progress will be monitored.

“We videotape it. We tested them on a few different movement patterns. Then, we are going to do it again in 3 or 4 months and see their improvements,” Apperson said.

While boxing is not a cure, it is giving people living with Parkinson’s a way to fight back.

“I still think its very early days to see what the research is going to show. But, so far the preliminary data has showed there has been both short-term and long-term benefits for patients in terms of their balance, in terms of their walking, their gait, their quality of life and ability to care for themselves,” said Dr. Kempe-Mehl.

By the end of an hour long class, the boxers are sweating and tired but smiling.

“I love it. That’s all I can say. I love it. I think it is great. I wish everybody who had Parkinson’s near and far would do boxing,” McCreary said.

Paragon Academy is also hoping to raise money to help low-income Parkinson’s patients pay for classes.

To learn more about the boxing program at Paragon Academy click here.

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