- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

ARDEN HILLS, Minn. (AP) - Boxing instructor Mark Royce paced the mat in red sneakers and barked instructions like a drill sergeant. His students were all over 60 and have Parkinson’s disease, but he wasn’t cutting them any slack.

“Let’s see you step up your game,” he yelled, his voice carrying though the Arden Hills boxing gym. “Jab! Upper cut! A little harder with those punches!”

Mike Fingerson, 83, made an unsteady pivot and threw a right upper cut at a 100-pound boxing bag. Tap. The bag’s metal chain creaked a bit. It wasn’t a knock-out blow, but with each jab, Fingerson hopes to beat back his disease, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1SJ9eZx ) reported.

“People with Parkinson’s tend to have small, slow movements,” said Maria Walde-Douglas, a physical therapist at Struthers Parkinson’s Center in Golden Valley and proponent of boxing fitness training. “Boxing is the opposite of that. It requires eye-hand coordination, balance and moving fast with a lot of power. It’s a lot of things rolled into one. Plus it’s fun.”

After getting established in other parts of the country, boxing-fitness classes for people with Parkinson’s have come to the Twin Cities. By next month, four local clubs will offer sessions, including the Title Boxing Club in Arden Hills.

Parkinson’s affects about 1 million people in the United States. The progressive disease kills dopamine-producing cells in the region of the brain that affects movement, which can cause tremors, stiffness, slowness, muscle freezes and a loss of balance, along with mental fogginess and depression. Medication can control symptoms, but there is no cure.

So why has boxing become a popular treatment for people with Parkinson’s?

“Exercise is the closest thing we have to a cure,” said Okeanis Vaou, a neurologist and Parkinson’s specialist at Noran Neurological Clinic in Lake Elmo and Minneapolis. “It would be misleading to say exercise arrests the progression of the disease, but it can slow it significantly. I have patients who exercise two to three hours per day, every single day, and they are doing phenomenally well. I also have patients who were exercising and then they stopped abruptly for whatever reason, and within six months I see this fast decline.”

Exercise is now considered so important in managing the disease that Minnesota chapters of the National Parkinson Foundation and the American Parkinson Disease Association recently began offering $500 annual stipends for exercise classes, including boxing.

Research suggests the harder and the more often you work out, the larger the benefit. There are promising studies on bicycling, Pilates, Nordic walking with poles, and dancing, including Irish set dancing and tango. The University of Minnesota just launched a study on Parkinson’s and yoga, which, like tai chi, may help maintain flexibility and balance and reduce stress. One of the only studies to look at boxing fitness training found it improves balance and gait and makes some daily tasks easier.

“There haven’t been any head-to-head studies comparing boxing to other types of exercise,” said Vaou. “But I think boxing is a great idea.”

“The whole culture of boxing is pushing people beyond their limits, and it can be incredibly empowering, even for a little old 90-year-old lady,” said Walde-Douglas, who was certified two years ago by Rock Steady, a boxing program founded by a county prosecutor in Indianapolis a decade ago after boxing training slowed his disease. “I’ve seen people box who you’d think would be the least likely and least able to do it. The disease takes away a lot, and for some people boxing feels like they’re fighting back. I think it taps into your inner warrior. It’s not for everybody, but it’s for some people.”

Royce worked with Walde-Douglas to create a boxing fitness program modeled on Rock Steady to offer through Title Boxing Clubs in the Twin Cities. Knock out Parkinson’s classes started last month at the franchises Royce manages in Arden Hills and Coon Rapids. Title Boxing Club in Lakeville also offers the program. Meanwhile, Uppercut Boxing Gym in Northeast Minneapolis is signing people up for the first Rock Steady program in the Twin Cities.

“If it takes off, I think other club owners are interested and will say let’s do it,” said Royce.

About six people are taking the class in Arden Hills, which meets for an hour, twice a week. On a recent Tuesday, people arrived early to change shoes and wrap their hands. One man slowly entered leaning on a cane. Dozens of six-foot long black bags hung in rows over the padded floor and a corner was roped off in a tiny ring.

“I really hate exercise, but this has changed my attitude,” said a woman from St. Paul, as she wound a lime green wrap around her knuckles for protection. She preferred to remain anonymous since she hasn’t told friends about her diagnosis.

At 2 p.m., Royce strode onto the mat. During 35 years of teaching boxing and martial arts, he’s honed a style that blends military toughness with a lot of encouragement.

“Get those knees up real high. Get them way up there, Mike,” shouted Royce, as he started with a warm-up march around the room. “Get them ALL the way up. And I want those arms swinging straight, just like in the army.”

Fingerson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 10 years ago and approaches the disease with the problem-solving attitude he brought to his career as an engineer and founder of TSI Inc., a Shoreview company that manufactures precision testing equipment. Still, he is frustrated by his slow decline.

“I can always do a little more than I think I can,” he said. “But that little more isn’t as much as it used to be.”

A year ago he started falling, to the point where his wife stocked hydrogen peroxide to take the blood stains out of his clothes. In one nasty fall, he broke ribs. He got serious about doing daily exercises at home and took up boxing.

“Right now his falling is better than it was two months ago,” said his wife, Ruth Fingerson. “He hasn’t drawn blood in, oh, gosh, over six weeks. I really think it’s the combination of the boxing and the exercises.”

Another participant, Elizabeth Clark, also thinks exercise makes a difference. A graphic designer with a graduate degree in music composition, Clark was active but never exercised regularly, until her diagnosis five years ago in her 50s. The Minneapolis woman began pushing herself to go to physical therapy and classes in dance, Pilates, and now boxing.

“I’m more fluid and I feel overall a little better when I exercise,” said Clark, who also takes medication to manage her symptoms. “I think there’s more of a benefit in boxing than, say, going walking for a walk. You’re balancing on your right foot and then left foot, and then putting your left hand out, then your right hand. You’re constantly changing reference points. Something about that multiplicity of signals to your brain seems to be beneficial.”

On her bad days, Clark gets a glimpse into what the future may hold for her.

“Those are the moments when reality hits, when you think you just want to crawl into a hole,” she said. Boxing and the other exercise routines are a way of feeling as strong as she can, for as long as she can.

As the end of the Arden Hills class built to a crescendo. Royce told everyone to punch their bag for three minutes straight, as hard as they could, like human pistons.

“You’ve got this!” shouted Royce as he circled his boxing students. “Jab! Cross! Jab! Cross! Are you feeling it? All the way to the bell now! This is going to make you strong.”

The timer went off and the bell rang.

“Put your arms up,” Royce said. “That’s a victory. We took that fight, right?”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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