Every Monday from 3pm to 4:15pm at the Bangor Y in Maine, don’t be alarmed if you hear shouts of “1-2, 1-2” accompanied by the thuds and slaps of fists hitting bags and pads.
It’s just the Fighting Eagles Boxing Club going through their paces. This isn’t your average boxing team, though. Instead, the boxers here are all in various stages of Parkinson’s disease being led by a group of students from Husson University’s School of Physical Therapy who volunteer their time to teach the sweet science.
No, it’s not what you’re thinking.
“Our boxers don't hit each other, so the boxing program for people with Parkinson's disease, they hit bags, they'll hit focus mitts that are held by one of the volunteers, but they're not punching at people or at each other,” said Dr. Sondra Siegal, an associate professor at the school who has seen what learning the movements associated with boxing can do for those dealing with the debilitating nervous system disorder.
“People, when they hear boxing, they, of course, think about contact and they think about blows to the head, and so once we explain to them that it's non-contact and that we're working on encouraging powerful movements, we're working on a lot of trunk movements, we're working on things that challenge balance, and we combine the footwork with upper extremity work, and people have a very positive reaction to it. We have people who never in their lives would have thought about boxing before, but they know that it's been helpful for people with Parkinson's.”
Of course, boxing fans are well acquainted with Parkinson’s disease after seeing Muhammad Ali and Freddie Roach battle with it, and while the head trauma both experienced during their careers in the ring could have contributed to their diagnosis, something many debate, using the examples of Michael J. Fox and Linda Ronstadt as Parkinson’s sufferers who obviously weren’t prizefighters, what is plain for all to see is that when Roach works the pads with his fighters, the symptoms largely disappear. And as Roach has said, when Ali went to his Wild Card Gym several years before he passed in 2016 and hit the heavy bag, you wouldn’t have guessed that “The Greatest” had the disease.
So it’s no surprise that the people working with the Fighting Eagles are also seeing success.
“The people that come to us, most of them have never boxed before and have no idea about boxing,” said Dr. Siegel. “But they know that it has been shown to be helpful for people with Parkinson's disease.”
“When we start talking in classes about Parkinson's disease and how it causes a person to have smaller movements, you start boxing and then you have those big movements,” explains Kara Casavant, a PT student at Husson and the lead coach of the boxing classes. “With some punches you're going across your body, rotating through your shoulders, you have the fighting stance, all that kind of stuff. So having those big movements really does help them. So it made sense once we started learning about it and once I started seeing them participate.”
Casavant took mixed martial arts classes in high school, has a background in CrossFit and has studied the renowned Rock Steady Boxing classes that are also leading the fight against Parkinson’s. And when the boxers show up for their sessions, everyone is raring to go.
“Sometimes we ask them to punch as fast as they can, 1-2, 1-2, for 30 seconds,” said Dr. Siegel. “Our goal there is fast movements because one of the things that happens with Parkinson's disease is how people's movements slow down. So we push people to move faster and they do. When we push it, they can do it. It's all about challenging people to get them to improve. Another one of the hallmarks is postural instability. So by challenging people with difficult footwork and the upper extremities and the arm work, they improve.”
Even calling out the moves with Siegel, Casavant and the rest of the students has a purpose.
“Movements become very small and the voice also tends to get very soft, so as we're doing various punches and we're calling out 1-2 or 3-4, we have people shout with us, so we're getting their voice involved, and encouraging large amplitude movements and loudness of the voice,” adds Dr. Siegel.
Launched in 2017, the program had an average of 20 boxers, but the COVID-19 pandemic lowered that number to around eight to ten.
“People have been nervous about coming back,” she said.
But that won’t stop the Fighting Eagles, and as boxers trickle back, it’s clear that they’re not just showing up for the physical benefits, but the social ones as well.
“Parkinson's is such a tough, tough disease, and I think being able to have their peers there who also understand the struggles they're going through is incredible and it allows them to have another support system,” said Casavant. “We also do a lot of one-on-one interaction with the students and the participants because we do a lot of station work. That allows the students to talk to them and build that relationship and rapport with them. It gives them a whole other support system. It gives them a space where they're comfortable.”
Dr. Siegel tells of a boxer who had shoulder surgery last fall. A week later, she was back in class.
“She came the week after her shoulder surgery and punched with one hand,” she said.
Then there was the boxer whose Parkinson’s began progressing, leaving her in a wheelchair. She asked Dr. Siegel, “Do you think they'll still want to work with me if I'm in a wheelchair?”
She was told how much the students loved her and wanted her there.
“You better come,” Dr. Siegel said. “Of course, they want to work with you.”
Later, the boxer’s husband said, “Part of the reason that she's here is for the socialization. It gets her out and it gets her seeing other people.”
See, there are some good stories in boxing. You just have to look a little harder to find them.
For more information on the Fighting Eagles Boxing Club, visit https://www.facebook.com/punchoutparkinsons/