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Boxing – without an opponent – may help improve quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD), new research shows.

The Edith Cowan University (ECU) research undertaken in partnership with The Perron Institute and boxer Rai Fazio has shown boxing has demonstrated health benefits for people with PD including a reduction in fatigue and improvements in sleep.

Also collaborating with Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and the University of Western Australia, ECU researchers had 10 people with early-stage PD perform three one-hour boxing sessions per week, over 15 weeks.

Rather than an opponent, the group did battle against a Fightmaster boxing unit, a commercially available device which has 11 padded punching targets mounted to a stand.

The program had three distinct segments: an introduction to boxing, a high-intensity component and a cognitively challenging segment.

ECU’s Dr Travis Cruickshank

Participants completed two-to-three-minute “rounds” where they were required to strike the various pads in different sequences, followed by no more than two minutes of rest. Heart rate monitors were used to measure cardiovascular load and scales to assess perceived levels of exertion from both a physical and cognitive standpoint.

Dr Travis Cruickshank from ECU’s Centre for Precision Health said boxing had grown in popularity among those living with PD, despite little evidence supporting its use.

“We have a lot of the metrics needed to say it’s safe, well tolerated and that people enjoyed it.”

After the 15-week program, nine of the 10 participants improved their score on the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale, a tool used to measure the progression and severity of PD. The group also reported a reduction in fatigue and improvements in sleep.

Group boxing has the benefit of by combining many aspects of therapy, such as exercise, cognitive stimulation and socialisation into a single exercise, Dr Cruickshank said.

“In the past, I might have been working with people with Parkinson’s and we’d have exercises in a gym, then a separate computerised cognitive training program, and another event for the social aspect.

“With boxing, we can combine all of those and deliver it really quickly, which makes it all more enjoyable and people will stick with it.”  

A key aspect of the study was establishing boxing as a feasible option to be prescribed to people living with early-stage PD.

Despite the high intensity of many of the workouts, participants reported no increase in muscle soreness from the program, nor major injuries, which may be expected for people with PD. Every person completed the 15-week program with almost 97% of training sessions completed.

“So, in the future programs such as this could be run in people’s homes or in clinics, it could be self-administered, supervised in a clinic or done remotely via telehealth so people in regional areas can still be included,” Dr Cruickshank said.

“We know the camaraderie and positive relationships formed between the members in the study also served as a motivator. These social benefits cannot be understated, particularly given the link between socialisation and emotional wellbeing.”

The next step was to trial boxing’s therapeutic effectiveness in a larger group of people living with various stages of PD.

Boxing could be effective for other neurological conditions such as Huntington’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke and traumatic brain injury, Dr Cruickshank said.

“We know now it’s safe, well-tolerated and people enjoy it. Once we’ve established the therapeutic effectiveness with larger trials — then it will be ready to be implemented in the community.”

‘FIGHT-PD: A feasibility study of periodised boxing training for Parkinson disease’ was published in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.’