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Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disease. People with PD develop problems with movement. Symptoms can vary between people but may include:

  • tremors
  • slow movement
  • stiffness of limbs
  • balance problems

There still isn’t a cure for PD, but some researchers think high intensity exercise may slow the rate of the disease’s progression by promoting neural changes in the brain. Boxing in particular has been getting a lot of attention for its potential to help manage the progression of PD.

It’s estimated that more than 3,000 people in North America participate in boxing to help manage Parkinson’s disease.

Most of the evidence supporting the ability of boxing to help manage PD is anecdotal at this time, but a couple of small studies have found promising results.

Keep reading as we break down what the latest research has found about boxing for managing PD symptoms. We also look at what a typical class entails and whether your insurance can help cover the cost.

Parkinson’s boxing classes are non-combat workouts, meaning you won’t be fighting another person. Classes typically include exercises that help you improve hand-eye coordination, agility, speed, endurance, and strength.

Parkinson’s boxing classes typically range from 30 to 90 minutes. Classes may include:

  • stretches and warmup exercises
  • punching speed bags and heavy bags
  • ring work
  • footwork and agility exercises
  • jump rope
  • exercises to improve overall fitness
  • core exercises
  • calisthenics and circuit training
  • vocal exercises

More than 800 gyms that offer boxing classes for people with PD are affiliated with the nonprofit Rock Steady Boxing. According to their website, no boxing experience is needed to join classes and people of all ages are encouraged to participate. They offer four different class levels depending on your fitness level.

PD occurs when neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine start to die in a part of your brain called the substantia nigra.

Below, we take a deeper look at why exercise and boxing may help slow down the progression of PD.

How exercise may slow down Parkinson’s disease progression

Exercise is thought to help slow down or possibly even reverse the progression of Parkinson’s disease by causing neurological changes in your brain.

Animal studies have found that exercise may have neuroprotective effects on the brain by increasing your body’s production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and growth factors that promote the growth of brain cells.

Other animal studies have found that exercise might limit the depletion of dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra. Exercise might also enhance your body’s ability to adapt to altered levels of dopamine and another neurotransmitter called glutamate.

High intensity exercise may be particularly helpful

It’s thought that high intensity exercise might be particularly beneficial for slowing the progression of PD.

In a 2014 study, researchers examined the benefits of high intensity physical therapy with gait training, strengthening, and perceiving cues on a group of 30 participants in the early stages of PD. They found that the exercise program stimulated increased levels of BDNF and had neuroprotective effects on cells that produce dopamine.

In a 2018 clinical trial, researchers found that a high intensity treadmill program where participants ran at 80 to 85 percent of their maximum heart rate three times per week saw no change in the severity of their symptoms over 6 months. Participants who exercised at a lower intensity had a worsening of symptoms.

Benefits of boxing

Boxing has received a lot of attention as a form of high intensity exercise with the potential to be engaging and accessible for people with chronic diseases.

Most of the evidence supporting the use of boxing to help control PD symptoms is anecdotal at this time. But two early studies have found promising results.

A small 2013 study compared boxing training to traditional group exercise on function and quality of life in a group of 31 adults with Parkinson’s disease. The researchers found both groups had improvements in:

  • balance
  • mobility
  • quality of life

Only the boxing group had improvements in gait, velocity, and endurance. The traditional exercise group had significantly greater gains in balance confidence.

In an older 2011 study, researchers examine the effect of regular boxing sessions on the PD symptoms of a group of six participants. The participants attended 24 to 36 boxing sessions over 12 weeks with the option of continuing for an additional 24 weeks. Each 90-minute session consisted of boxing drills, stretching, strengthening, and endurance training.

The researchers found that the participants showed short-term and long-term improvements in balance, gait, daily activity, and quality of life.

More research is needed to fully understand the benefits of boxing for PD

Even though early research is promising, it’s important to note that more substantial evidence is needed to fully understand the benefits of boxing for PD. There’s little known about the optimal number of consecutive weeks, times per week, or minutes per week needed to see the most benefits.

A 2019 review of studies concluded that the current use of boxing for treating PD has accelerated beyond current research evidence.

Along with potential physiological benefits, joining a Parkinson’s boxing program with other people who are dealing with PD can potentially have psychological benefits.

In a 2020 study, participants reported that Rock Steady Boxing served as a catalyst for increasing hope, sense of purpose, and motivation.

Before starting a boxing program, you should speak with your doctor. Rock Steady Boxing recommends every person has their doctor sign a release form before participating.

It’s been suggested that boxing training could be beneficial in the early to middle stages of the disease and less appropriate at the end stage.

If you have a heart condition or another condition that may prevent you from undergoing high intensity exercise, boxing may not be right for you.

Your insurance may cover some expenses related to PD, but it’s unlikely to cover the cost of boxing classes.

Some gyms may accept some forms of insurance. According to the website of a New York-based gym, they now accept Independent Health as a form of insurance to cover sessions with a $10 copay for each session and up to 8 sessions per month.

The cost of Parkinson’s boxing classes vary based on your geographic location and the gym you go to. People typically report paying about $75 to $150. As an example, Icor Rock Steady Boxing in Iowa City lists their price as $75 per month after a $75 startup fee.

You can search the Rock Steady Boxing directory to see if any gyms in your area offer classes. Some gyms not affiliated with Rock Steady Boxing offer Parkinson’s boxing so it’s also worth contacting local gyms and recreation centers.

The Parkinson Foundation is currently offering online boxing and fitness classes.

Boxing gloves may be provided to you by the gym, or you may need to bring your own. It’s important to stay hydrated during your workout, so make sure you bring plenty of water.

Intense exercise is thought to slow down the progression of PD by stimulating neurological changes in your brain. Boxing in particular has received a lot of attention for its potential slow down the progression of PD.

More research is needed to fully understand boxing’s benefits, but some early studies look promising.

Along with the potential physiological benefits, joining a Parkinson’s boxing program allows you to connect with a supportive group of people also dealing with PD. If you can’t find classes in your area, you can also try online classes.