Boxing classes across Europe are tailored to help people with Parkinson’s disease boost fitness, flexibility and fun.
Parkinson's Europe spoke to sports clubs around Europe that offer boxing classes specifically for people with Parkinson’s (PwPs). While the locations of these classes vary, everyone involved spoke passionately about the various benefits – for both physical and mental health – this form of exercise can bring to PwPs.
In the first of our two-part series on boxing, we speak to instructors and coaches on what the sport can offer PwPs.
“Rock Steady Boxing is a unique exercise programme that is based on training used by boxing professionals, and adapted to PwPs.
Hans Louwerse, in the ring
“The programme involves regular exercises, such as stretching, bicycling, running, jump-roping, push-ups, balancing and lots of non-contact boxing, led by experienced trainers and coaches. It is suitable for both men and women of all ages and levels of ability.
We have seen the benefits boxing brings to PwPs, including helping people to put on their trousers without falling over.
“We started offering boxing classes for PwPs in Ede in January 2014. My physical therapist had patients with Parkinson’s, and when she heard of Rock Steady Boxing she asked me if I could start up these kind of classes in Ede. We currently hold two classes of 20 boxers a week, and recently gave a demonstration in Huizen hoping to inspire people there.
“Recent studies at the Cleveland Clinic suggest that certain types of exercise are neuro-protective, and may actually slow disease progression. In our classes, we have seen the benefits boxing brings to PwPs, including helping people to put on their trousers without falling over, or being able to tie their own shoelaces again. It is also a very sociable activity – we always go for coffee after training.”
“The historic Narva Boxing Club opened in Stockholm in 1930 with around 200 members. Our club is open to everyone, from young to old, from competitive boxers to people who are 60-years-plus, and anyone with Parkinson’s is welcome.
“We now have around 30 boxing classes per week, five of which are specifically for PwPs. We are not a ‘rehab institution’ where people are treated as patients – our philosophy is that the people training in our club are fighters. In our experience, this attitude is much appreciated among our Parkinson’s members!
For some, their Parkinson’s progression seems to be slowing down, or in some cases have stopped altogether, and others say that they feel as good as they did when they received their diagnosis.
“We started offering boxing classes for PwPs two years ago. Five of our trainers are certified by Rock Steady Boxing in Indianapolis, but we have also been inspired by other facilities such as the famous Gleason’s Gym in New York, US.
“During the start-up period, we were supported by the Allmänna Arvsfonden (Swedish Inheritance Fund). There are now around 50-60 PwPs who train in our facilities, and they see really good results. For some, their Parkinson’s progression seems to be slowing down, or in some cases have stopped altogether, and others say that they feel as good as they did when they received their diagnosis five or even 10 years ago! Some of our boxers have even lowered their levels of medication – after consulting with their doctors.
“The classes involve about 60-70% classic boxing training although, of course, blows to the head and heavy blows to the body are not allowed. The rest of the training involves voice training, cognitive training (for example, solving simple equations parallel with physical training), rock and roll and salsa dancing, circle training (involving ‘sparring’ with our boxers) etc. It differs from other types of Parkinson’s exercise because we offer very intensive training during the 60-minute class. The goal is that all members of the group should sweat by the end of the lesson. The training must be so much fun that the members come back several times a week.
“We are now inspiring other clubs in Sweden to start up this form of training for people with Parkinson’s. We have 11 boxing clubs in 11 towns, from Luleå in upper North Sweden, to Malmö down south, all of which offer boxing training for people with Parkinson’s. Some of these started up recently, and while there are currently about 200 people training, we expect this will increase to 300 people in the coming six months.”
“We started Parkinson-Boxing here in around 2010, when the Parkinson Luxembourg association was looking for new projects that would motivate the members to become and remain active.
“We now hold boxing classes for PwPs four times a month at the centre; we run two classes during the day, and two evening classes for the younger members. An average of 20 people come to the afternoon classes, and six or seven to the evening classes.
The classes work by moving the whole body in a range of movements while continuously changing the routine. This means participants can progress through the classes, improving flexibility, balance, hand-eye coordination and self-awareness.
“Our regular workouts are focused on different strengths. A professional boxer aims to improve his or her boxing techniques, their speed, strength of strikes, and their speed of movement. Parkinson-Boxing is completely different. We set out five sets of exercises on the floor. Each participant is allocated a coach and a safety supervisor, and the aim is for the participant to complete the full set of five exercises.
“The Parkinson-Boxing workshops are designed for anyone with Parkinson's, both those in the early stages and those with more severe symptoms, such as rigidity and bradykinesia. We simply adapt the exercises to suit the participant. The classes work by moving the whole body in a range of movements while continuously changing the routine. This means participants can progress through the classes, improving flexibility, balance, hand-eye coordination and self-awareness. Participants learn to move about in a more conscious fashion, which helps them to avoid falls.
“There are many benefits for PwPs. We had one participant whose body kept freezing. However, during the boxing class we noticed that he moved about more easily and freely. This was because he was moving his arms at the same time as his feet; this in turn enabled him to adapt his movements in his day-to-day life. Another participant told me he was able to work in his garden with more ease. We had one participant who was in a wheelchair and the classes were the only chance that he had to let off steam.”
“We hold boxing classes for people with Parkinson’s twice a week, and around 12 people attend each class. It started when PwP Rune Vethe was introduced to Rock Steady Boxing at the World Parkinson Congress 2013. He contacted the Norwegian Boxing Federation to check for possibilities for PwPs in Norway, and classes started at the Oslo Boxing Club in 2014.
“Our coaches have included Norwegian professional boxer Alexander Hagen, and proboxer Kevin Melhus. I took over as a coach in 2016, and last year the club became the first Rock Steady Boxing affiliate in Oslo.
“The interest for Rock Steady Boxing is increasing in Norway. Soon we will have three different Parkinson’s groups, based on the severity of the members’ conditions.
“The class is non-contact, but otherwise it is more or less a regular boxing class with customised tasks for stretching, balance and coordination. Any PwP can take part.
“A 2011 study in the journal Physical Therapy showed improvements in walking, balance, performance of daily activities and quality of life in six PwPs who boxed regularly.
We have many members that experience improvement in symptoms.”
Have you attended a boxing class specifically designed for PwPs? What exercise do you find helpful in relieving your symptoms? Email email@example.com and tell us your stories.
Parkinson's Europe is sharing this article for information purposes only; it does not represent Parkinson's Europe's views and is not an endorsement by Parkinson's Europe of any particular treatments, therapies or products.