Since Muhammad Ali passed away earlier this month, he’s been remembered as much more than just the most famous boxer in the world. In addition to being a political activist and civil rights pioneer, he was also among the world’s most well-known Parkinson’s Disease patients. And while neurologists warn about the impact that boxing can have on the brain, Parkinson’s patients are actually using the sport to help fight their symptoms.
Dan Hovanesian wore boxing gloves as he punched a bag hanging from the ceiling of the Nonantum Boxing Club in Newton.
“Feels great," he said, slightly out of breath. "Feel it in your upper shoulders, your chest. It’s great.”
Hovanesian noticed something wasn’t right seven or eight years ago at an office Christmas party. “And I came home to my wife, and I said, ‘something’s wrong.’ I was dancing, but my feet felt like they were stuck in buckets of cement, I couldn’t move.”
Then, a week or so later, a coworker said something seemed different about him. He went to the doctor and got the diagnosis – he had Parkinson’s disease.
And that’s why he was in a gym, being bossed around by boxing coach Albert Latulippe.
“People think that you get Parkinson’s from boxing," said Latulippe. "From being hit in the head and getting head trauma. But we don’t do any of the physical punching of each other.”
It’s called Rock Steady Boxing. It’s specifically for Parkinson’s patients, and there are 200 of these programs in 41 states and three countries.
“We work on balance, we work on hand-eye coordination," Latulippe said. "And these are the types of things that are going to help out people with Parkinson’s.”
Some of the boxers, like Walter Goldstein of Brookline, have noticeable tremors. But not all of them.
“Everybody has their own symptoms," said Goldstein. "You know, as my neurologist says, ‘if you’ve seen one Parkinson’s patient, you’ve seen one Parkinson’s patient.’”
Earl Anspach was a flight attendant and customer service rep for United Airlines for 40 years.
“I was having trouble walking a little bit when I was still working, and of course we did a lot of walking," Anspach said. "So I knew something was going on probably about a year before I was diagnosed.”
Anspach said his balance has improved since he started boxing. “And there’s a lot of things I can do now that I couldn’t do before," he said. "When I first tried jumping jacks, I couldn’t even begin to do a jumping jack."
Dr. David Simon directs the movement disorder center at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center. As a neurologist, he's no fan of boxing. “I actually think the sport should be banned,” he said. But nobody’s getting hit at Rock Steady, and he’s sending his patients there because he says research shows it works.
“Parkinson’s patients like to have some control over how they’re doing in their future," he said. "And this is a way to give them control, and there are good data to show, numerous studies to show physical exercise can improve the symptoms.”
Scientists are still researching why that happens. Exercise definitively strengthens muscles and improves cardiovascular health. But, “it also may have neuroprotective effects in the brain,” Simon said. Meaning it might be slowing the loss of neurons that’s seen in Parkinson’s patients.
The boxers cheered each other on as they saw how many times each of them could touch a spot on the floor while holding a pushup position. A lot of them said this kind of camaraderie, and being with others facing the same challenges, is part of what draws them back. They’re all fighting to hold back the progression of the disease, while working to get back some of what they’ve already lost.
Mike Gaffin of Boston said he struggles with overhead compartments on planes. “One of my personal goals is to be able to get on a plane, take this 50-pound bag, which is my wife’s, mainly her stuff, of course, and lift it up, and take it down without it hitting anybody, without it falling on anybody," Gaffin said. He's not quite there yet, but, "pretty close," he said. "Getting there.”
In Thursday's class, Gaffin and the others will go through a series of tests to see how close they’re coming to reaching their goals, as they help their doctors better understand how to treat patients who receive a diagnosis of Parkinson’s.