News ArchivesRead News

Boxing training used to fight against Parkinson's disease

Friday July 22, 2016

Diana Nollen

The Gazette -  

CEDAR RAPIDS — Members of Kris Cameron’s boxing class aren’t fighting each other. They’re fighting Parkinson’s disease. And they’re winning the battle to increase their strength and dexterity.

When Christina Larsen, 46, of Cedar Rapids, stepped into her first boxing class in April, she left in tears. She had spent so much time and energy trying to hide her young-onset Parkinson’s that her right side was weak and slow to react to her movement impulses.

“It was like I’d had a stroke,” she said.

Four months later, she’s landing rapid jabs with both hands on the heavy bags at TITLE Boxing in Cedar Rapids.

“Now I’m boxing the crap out of it,” she exclaimed. “Isn’t it awesome?”

Diagnosed in 2009 at age 38, she decided to check out boxing as a way to increase strength and coordination after seeing a news report last spring. She was intrigued to learn that adding boxing to a patient’s arsenal of exercises seems to help counter the progressive nervous system disorder that most commonly affects muscles, movement and balance.

Using air quotes, Larsen said she joined a “normal” boxing class at the northeast-side facility, where she was greeted with open arms by staff and students. She’s worked her way up to five classes a week, adding Cameron’s Thursday afternoon class geared specifically for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“Three months ago, I couldn’t button my shirt,” said Richard Wolfe, 69, of Cedar Rapids. “A month ago I couldn’t touch my hands on the floor and keep my knees straight. Now I can do both.”

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about eight years ago. He’s been exercising with Cameron for five months and took up boxing about three and a half months ago. He also takes dance lessons. “The choreography helps with mind coordination,” he said.

Wolfe has participated in a couple of exercise studies at the University of Iowa, including a walking study, but when winter came and he had to move indoors, he grew bored and quit.

He’s no longer bored.

“When boxing started, I found muscles I hadn’t used in years,” he said.

Mike Van Horn, 66, of Cedar Rapids, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago. He has been exercising with Cameron for more than two years and added boxing in November. During a recent session, he quickly showed off the newfound spring in his step — being able to hop on both feet and add a midair shift from right foot forward to left foot forward.

“You can see the stuff I can do now, that I couldn’t do before,” he said with pride. “I’m moving so much better.”

It’s easier to get up in the morning and move around in his everyday life, he noted. And yet, he’s not wearing blinders.

“We know that this is a progressive disease and we’re going to get worse as time goes on, unfortunately,” Van Horn said, “but we try to delay it.”

Improvements like he and his classmates are experiencing give them hope, Van Horn said.

“The only thing we’ve got is hope,” he said. “I check the Internet almost every morning to see (if) maybe there’s a cure. You’d know about it, if there’s a cure. It’d be a big thing and make headlines in the news. But you just keep looking anyway.”

And exercising.


Cameron, 46, of Cedar Rapids, has been a personal trainer in the Corridor for 20 years. She’s certified in nearly 20 specialties, from arthritis and osteoporosis programs to the science of bodybuilding and cardiovascular nutrition and fitness. She works with all ages, but spends most of her time focused on the elderly and people with movement challenges and chronic conditions.

Her passion for Parkinson’s patients grew out of watching her father become inactive after his diagnosis, then quickly deteriorate and succumb to the illness. About six years ago, she started researching the disease and discovered that exercise can help delay its progression in some cases.

“The more I read, the more I was intrigued,” she said. She sought out a certification program and now teaches seven or eight classes a week for people with Parkinson’s, at sites in Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Iowa City and Williamsburg.

“It’s very much a needed service,” she added.

Last fall, she saw a “60 Minutes” segment on the Rock Steady boxing program for people with Parkinson’s.

“All of a sudden, the interest in boxing just really blew up,” she said. Already certified in kickboxing, she sought out further training and began offering her own class, which also folds in functional exercise.

“It’s not just an hour of boxing. We also work on a lot of strength and balance and gait — some of the same things we work on in the other (exercise) class, but then we have that other component of the boxing, which is a little more challenging for people who are up for that kind of a challenge,” she said.

During a recent Thursday afternoon session, four women and six men middle-aged and older had their hands taped up, then hit the gym running laps, before moving to the floor for squats, head turns, arm turns mimicking flipping flapjacks, footwork, pivots and jabs in the air. Next, they pulled on the gloves and began punching the long heavy bags suspended from the ceiling in nine neat rows.

Cameron moved among her students, guiding movements, correcting form and offering words of encouragement and assurance as they moved through a series of arm and foot work.

“You have a lot of power in that right cross,” she told Larsen.

“It’s a lot like dancing, with arm movement, foot movement and balance,” she told the class. “It’s more than just punching. You’ll apply that the more that you do it.”

After several rounds at the bags, her students moved back to the floor for cool down and coordination exercises — and plenty of stretching.

“I’m proud of all of you for just coming in and trying something different,” she said. “You get kudos for that.”

They’re about halfway through Cameron’s first 12-week boxing session. Since she is collecting data from the class and its students, tuition is free. Her work is being sponsored by the Iowa chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association.

“This isn’t something that’s going to be a major public study,” she said, but the results will help guide her further efforts to improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease.

The benefits are reciprocal.

“These are the best people I’ve ever met,” she said. “We all have those days where we really don’t want to leave the house or get out of bed, and I look at these people who are having difficulty with the simplest things like walking and getting up out of a chair, and they’re coming to every class and they’re working hard on all these things — and they have a great attitude about it. I just see the hope that these people still have. Even though they are faced with an incurable disease, they have a lot of hope,” she said.

“If something as simple as exercise can help, I’m there.”

Looking for more Parkinson's News? Sign up for the NWPF Weekly E-Newsletter.

Sign Up