Many people think boxing only involves opponents duking it out, so "non-contact boxing" might sound like a contradiction in terms. But this form of exercise, which involves throwing punches but not receiving them, has found a role well beyond the ring. Physical therapists are now using boxing fitness to help people with Parkinson's disease manage their symptoms.
A progressive nervous system disease, Parkinson's causes involuntary and uncontrollable tremors or shaking. People with Parkinson's also battle other physical issues like muscle stiffness and weakness, poor balance and coordination, fatigue, a stooping posture, and a slow, shuffling gait.
"Non-contact boxing fitness has been shown to help many people with Parkinson's improve their balance, hand-eye coordination, mental focus, muscle strength, and body rhythm," says Laurie Keating, a physical therapist assistant with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network who works with Parkinson's patients as a Rock Steady Boxing coach. "But boxing fitness also can help older adults in the same way, since they face many of the same physical and mental challenges."
In this corner
Rock Steady Boxing is a national program with almost 900 affiliates. While it caters to individuals with Parkinson's, these people are just one part of a steady growth in boxing fitness over the past decade. In 2021 more than five million Americans put on boxing gloves for exercise.
Workouts are done using punching bags and hitting oversized boxing mitts worn by coaches. Class formats can vary, but most routines, including those offered through Rock Steady, involve a coach leading you through a series of moves based on standard boxing punches: crosses, hooks, uppercuts, and jabs.
For instance, you may perform a combination of punches for a set time, such as jabs, crosses, jabs again, and two hooks. Other routines may involve more complex sequences, or something simpler like repeating one or two punches at a quick pace.
Slip on the gloves
You can find boxing fitness classes at many gyms, YMCAs, and specialized boxing clubs. Gloves are often provided, or you can purchase your own. You are also taught how to wrap your hands and knuckles for extra protection. (Since boxing incorporates both strength training and cardio, make sure to check with your doctor beforehand to make sure this is a safe form of exercise for you.) If you are unsure whether boxing is right for you, observe a class. You will often feel more comfortable after watching how the class is structured and even feel motivated by seeing people like yourself participate.
While boxing fitness can provide a complete strength and cardio workout, here are some benefits that stand out.
Balance and posture. The wide-legged stance used in boxing and the shifting of your center of gravity when you throw a punch are excellent training for improving balance and posture. "If you look at boxers, they are always moving their feet to establish balance and foundation to throw their next punch," says Keating. Also, the footwork required to move around a bag teaches you how to change direction quickly and safely, which helps with agility and lowers your odds of falling.
Core and lower-body strength. Boxing can strengthen your arms and shoulders, but the core and lower body are where the most significant gains occur. "Effectively throwing punches begins at the feet," says Keating. "Power is driven through the legs, up through the core, and then extends out of the arms to deliver the punch. So, with every punch, you help strengthen your legs and core muscles."
A stronger core improves posture, protects against low back pain, and helps with everyday movements like bending, twisting, and reaching.
Memory and concentration. Boxing has a thinking component, in which your brain must stay one step ahead of your body. During routines, you have to memorize and execute various sequences and combinations of punches. "This not only makes you learn complex maneuvers but keeps you focused in the moment, because you need to remember the current punches and then what immediately comes next," says Keating.
Stress relief. Aerobic exercise is a wonderful stress reliever, but boxing adds the benefit of releasing built-up tension. "Sometimes it just feels good to let out aggression and a punching bag doesn't hit back," says Keating.
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