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Fighting Parkinson’s disease

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Stan Franks might be 76 years old, but his boxing gloves are on and he’s ready for a fight. His adversary is Parkinson’s disease, and he’s about to sweat it out in a 90-minute session designed to help him live with the neurological disorder.

If nothing else, the non-contact boxing, weight training and aerobics help him clear his head for a while.

Boxing is Stan’s favourite part. He shouts encouragement to his partner as they throw harmless punches, single-mindedly following their trainer’s careful instructions.

“I think boxing is the greatest thing for us,” says Stan. “When the Parkinson’s came, I lost myself. But I have found myself here. The comradery is wonderful.”

Stan is one of dozens of men and women aged 30 to 90 who regularly attend KOPD (Knock out Parkinson’s Disease) sessions designed by Adrian Unger OAM, a retired pharmacist, who also has the disease.

Adrian, who boxed for fitness before his diagnosis, was surprised his symptoms were significantly less severe than those of his father, who also had Parkinson’s but needed a wheelchair within two years of his diagnosis.

Adrian suspected his boxing had something to do with it. He did his research and found a highly regarded program in Indianapolis, which he visited and has been spreading the word ever since.

“I see non-contact boxing as an adjunct to the medicine prescribed by my neurologist,” says Adrian, who is fit and strong and received his first disabled sticker in March, almost 15 years after his diagnosis.

Adrian spent several months designing the course material for KOPD, which he launched in 2014 and is constantly refining.

There is mounting evidence in favour of boxing as a treatment for Parkinson’s, with University of Indianapolis researchers reporting it is safe and improves balance, gait, activities of daily living and quality of life.1

The researchers write in the journal Physical Therapy that these positive changes may be indicative of the whole-body approach and dynamic balance activities of the boxing training program.

Catholic Healthcare is partnering with the Carioti MMA gym in Hornsby, NSW, to offer the KOPD program.

“KOPD is the most exciting program I have been involved in,” says Kerry Silver, Home and Community Services Coordinator at Catholic Healthcare’s Wahroonga Wellness Centre.

She says every aspect of the program is carefully designed to help people with Parkinson’s, from the yelling which helps maintain verbal ability to the big, long boxing movements, which help counter stiffness.

“Balance is essential for boxing, along with hand-eye coordination and constant directional change,” she says.

KOPD caters for people at various stages of the disease and assistant trainers provide one-on-one help to those who are unable to participate on their own.

One of the assistants is Adrian’s daughter Niqui Unger. People in her care don’t have much facial expression and may be non-verbal, so she keeps an eye out for the occasional smile. “I may not get much oral feedback, but I know they love it,” she says.

Someone who admits he finds the sessions tough is Ken Wolfsohn, 68. “But I feel the benefits. I am a lot more loose and I keep coming back,” he says.

“The boxing is great. It stimulates the mind. I feel sore afterwards, but you feel as though you have done something,” says Todd Koster, 54, who was diagnosed about nine years ago.

“It’s a great bunch of blokes. I definitely recommend boxing.”

Adrian is quick to point out that women enjoy the classes as much as blokes. “You wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of some of their punches!”

Reference

  1. Combs SA,  Dyer Diehl M, Staples WH et al; Boxing Training for Patients With Parkinson Disease: A Case Series; Physical Therapy; Jan 2011