With the sound of a bell, the round starts. Eight boxers, lined up along heavy bags, begin throwing punches. Their coach, Kim Voronin, paces back and forth behind the line, calling out new combinations to throw during the three-minute round.
These fighters are part of a class held in San Francisco called Rock Steady Boxing, and they all have one important fact in common. They all suffer from Parkinson’s disease.
From legendary boxers Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson to boxing coach Freddie Roach, Parkinson’s disease has been notably tied to the sport of boxing. Now, non-contact boxing is emerging as a useful therapy for the disease.
Rock Steady Boxing is a program developed specifically to help people dealing with Parkinson’s disease combat their symptoms. In a non-contact boxing class, Parkinson’s patients -- or fighters as they call themselves -- retrain their bodies and minds in an effort to reduce their symptoms and regain some normalcy in their day-to-day lives.
“It’s a typical boxers' workout,” says Voronin. She even uses the Rock Steady Boxing class structure for her standard intermediate boxing classes.
Outside of boxing, the classes address certain issues specific to Parkinson’s, like voice, posture, gait and balance.
“With Parkinson’s, people tend to get smaller or posture starts to worsen. So big movements, strength training drills, balance, posture, voice activation [are important]," says Voronin.
It’s this combination of balance and coordination created through drills in a “forced” exercise manner that helps offer a reprieve from Parkinson’s symptoms.
In the context of forced exercise, people push their bodies beyond their standard comfort range. Medical professionals throughout the U.S. have been studying the effects of forced exercise on the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Working on strength and coordination during boxing can go hand in hand fairly easily, but in this class there's also a vocal aspect to it. A common non-motor symptom of Parkinson’s disease is a quiet or monotone voice that can cause difficulties for patients to communicate. During the class, fighters are expected to count out the exercises along with the instructor. The louder they count, the better. Cheering and yelling are also highly encouraged, not only for improving voice activation but also for boosting morale.
Two common non-motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, aside from voice changes, are depression and anxiety. In Rock Steady Boxing classes, fighters are able to create a social environment where they can support and encourage one another in their battles against Parkinson’s.
Kevin Kwok is a fighter who's been training in San Francisco’s Rock Steady Boxing program for the past year and a half. He was initially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago.
“You know it’s funny, when I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s I tried to avoid it. There was a lot of denial that went on in my life."
But now Kwok is championing his disease through exercise and surgical intervention.
“What I’m trying to do with Rock Steady now, and other things, is to train hard enough to slow the progression again,” he says. "It’s not a cure but it’s bought me back time in my life."