April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. This month was designed to increase awareness about Parkinson’s disease, educate people about its symptoms and treatments, and better support people who are living with the condition.
Parkinson’s disease is a long-term degenerative disorder that targets the nervous system and affects the way that a patient moves. Symptoms include tremors, rigid muscles, issues with posture and balances, slowed movement, and changes in speech and writing. There is no cure, but there are medications that can make a significant positive impact on a person’s symptoms. There are also other treatments that can improve the lives of people who have Parkinson’s. And one of those treatments is martial arts. A properly designed training program for Parkinson’s patients can improve everything from mobility and balance to overall well-being.
In the spirit of raising awareness, let’s take a look at three martial arts disciplines with proven benefits for people with Parkinson’s disease.
In Chicago, a team of researches from Rush University and Fonesca Martial Arts karate dojo have partnered to bring karate to people who have Parkinson’s.
It all began when sensei John Fonseca’s uncle started seeing Jori Fleisher, MD, MSCE. The patient and doctor began discussing the potential benefits of karate training for people with Parkinson’s and then the two of them worked together with Fonesca to develop this martial arts training program/study hybrid called Kick Out PD.
Fonesca and his crew work with the students, adapting karate instructions for their specific needs and goals. “Students lie on their backs or sides and practice various kicks. As they become more familiar with the mechanics, they stand up and practice these kicks while holding on to the wall. The last stage is to practice standing without holding on to anything,” he told Brain & Life about his teaching process. Once his students are comfortable and stable enough to stand, he teaches them a number of techniques geared toward balance and focus.
Dr. Fleisher and her team observed the results. And so far, they’re looking very promising. According to their 2020 paper, KICK OUT PD: Feasibility and quality of life in the pilot karate intervention to change kinematic outcomes in Parkinson’s Disease, individuals with mild and moderate Parkinson’s disease saw their quality of life improve “to a clinically significant degree” in a 10-week trial. The Kick Out PD team are currently working on longer trials to confirm their results and working to figure out if their program can be adapted for people who are in later stages of the condition.
Parkinson’s experts have been recommending Tai Chi as a complementary therapy for years. They believe that the martial art is perfect for people with Parkinson’s because of its focus on balance and large movements.
And there’s a growing body of evidence to back them up. Take this 2020 study from the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, for example. In this trial, one group of patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease received 80 minutes of Tai Chi instruction per day, three times per week. A control group did 90 minutes of other moderate exercise three times a week. At the end of two months, researches found that both groups saw improvements in their symptoms and overall well-being. But the Tai Chi group fared better than the general exercisers.
“The results of this study supported that Tai Chi was an effective meditation technique for people who have mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease,” the authors concluded. “The incorporation of Tai Chi in the daily life of Parkinson’s disease patients allowed them to stay functionally and physically active. Improvement of physical parameters indicated that Tai Chi had the potential to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease and delay the introduction of levodopa.”
In the mid-2000s, 40-year-old Scott C. Newman was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease. And his friend Vince Perez, a former Golden Gloves boxer, had an idea. What if he could develop a boxing program for his friend that targeted Parkinson’s just like a coach would develop a game plan for a specific opponent? Newman thrived under Perez’s training and the two started to work on a program to help others.
That program became Rock Steady Boxing, a non-profit organization that now offers classes for people of all fitness levels and all stages of Parkinson’s across the globe.
“Various studies in the 1980s and 1990s supported the notion that rigorous exercise, emphasizing gross motor movement, balance, core strength, and rhythm, could favorably impact range of motion, flexibility, posture, gait, and activities of daily living,” the mission statement on Rock Steady’s official site reads. “More recent studies, most notably at Cleveland Clinic, focus on the concept of intense ‘forced’ exercise, and have begun to suggest that certain kinds of exercise may be neuro-protective, i.e., actually slowing disease progression. Our clients attest, and academic institutions, such as University of Indianapolis and Butler University, are reporting and documenting the improved quality of life among our boxers. Discovery of a cure may be many years away, but in the last seven years, there is evidence that progress is made in all stages of the disease by those participating in the RSB program.”