Parkinson's patients train with boxing

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Most boxers at San Francisco's Polk Street Gym are training to fight an opponent in the ring, but a few are training to fight an opponent in their own bodies.

Here, boxing coach Kim Woolley leads a class known as Rock Steady Boxing. It's tailored to patients suffering from Parkinson's disease.

"Boxing, in general, is a forced exercise and they find that forced exercise helps manage the symptoms of Parkinson's, things like tremors, gate issues, and it just helps with balance, coordination," Woolley said.

As with many neurological diseases, the symptoms of Parkinson's can vary in severity from patient to patient. Veronica Garcia-Hayes says she often experiences tremors in one arm when she's using the other. She believes the rapid fire exchanges of hands and footwork helps her limbs to better stay in sync.

"I think it forces you to use your arms, you hands, your brain, your body, all at same time. It challenges your brain. And I think as you work that, it gets easier to do over time," Garcia-Hayes said.

"Sometimes I'm walking hunched over, feeling stiff, and I always leave feeling much, much better," fellow boxer Ana Migos echoed.

The Rock Steady Program was launched three years ago in southern California. The Polk Street Gym is the first location here in the Bay Area.

Although there is no direct data on the program itself, founders say multiple studies have validated the benefit of coordinated exercise for Parkinson's.

"They've noticed definite improvement with symptoms, sleeping better at night, moods were better," Woolley said.

For some, it's an ironic twist that a sport that carries the inherent risk of brain injury and neurological damage could actually help a neurological condition. But in these classes there is no sparring or contact, except the pop of leather on leather. And just maybe a healthy respect for the fighting spirit.

"Hitting the brain is probably not a good idea for someone with Parkinson's," Garcia-Hayes admitted. "But if I were healthier, maybe a little bit younger, I think I'd try it,"

Coaches evaluate all new members before training begins. The membership cost is $60 a month for unlimited classes.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

Report a Typo
Copyright © 2021 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.