It’s a beautiful Monday morning in February, but the six boxers who show up for their group fitness class at the YMCA in Randolph, New Jersey, waste little time discussing the weather. A handwritten workout has been taped to the wall, and instructors man their posts: one at the heavy bag, another by the medicine balls, and a third at the door encouraging everyone to put on his or her game face.
The boxers are part of a larger group of 23 men and women who train two days on land and one day in water in an aqua boxing class. They are fighting much more than a punching bag — they show up to fight for their lives.
The on-land classes are part of Rock Steady Boxing, an international organization that uses boxing to help improve the symptoms and morale of individuals with Parkinson’s disease. At this YMCA and numerous others, instructors have been improving lives with that approach, but some, like the one in Randolph, have also found benefits in bringing boxing into the water.
One boxer who participates in the Randolph YMCA’s water boxing class, Fight Back UH20, is Tom Daviau, of Flanders, New Jersey. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Daviau towers over most of the class, but what you immediately notice about him is his competitive, can-do spirit.
When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Daviau’s reaction wasn’t uncommon — “What can I do right now to help myself?” he remembers thinking — and exercise was the answer his doctor gave him. Once he learned about the benefits of boxing, he was hooked on the workout as much as he was on the camaraderie the class provided.
“This is exactly what I need with structure now,” Daviau told Fox News. “It’s almost like I’m expected to be here.”
“It’s kind of magic”
Currently, Parkinson’s has no cure, so fighting the disease is a never-ending battle for the nearly 60,000 Americans diagnosed with the disease each year. Parkinson’s impairs nerve cells in the brain, thereby diminishing production of the chemical dopamine. Dopamine influences body functions that make things like coordination and movement possible — leading to tremors, imbalance, and stiffness, among other issues.
What makes the disease even more frustrating is a lack of a standard diagnostic tests. Without them, medications often cannot be administered quickly enough before symptoms have progressed.
Randolph YMCA aquatic director Kathy Fisher, who is a former boxer, described physical programs like Fight Back UH20 as “one of the few things right now that’s helping people today.”
The benefits of boxing on land are amplified in the water, Fisher said, and the setting reduces the risk of injury, giving the boxers in class the ability to physically do more without the fear of falling or hurting themselves.
“The worst thing that can happen is they get wet,” Fisher told Fox News.
Studies suggest training in the water can help improve stiffness and balance issues in Parkinson’s patients, and boxing is a high-impact sport that has a lasting neuroprotective effect for these individuals.
“You take the weight off of their joints, and they’re actually able to do a lot more in the water — running around, balancing on a balance beam, doing footwork in the water, moving side to side, changing their feet while they’re boxing,” Richard Groel, who instructs Fight Back UH20, told Fox News.
Added resistance from boxing gloves and bags custom-made for water use help facilitate the class, Groel said.
“They’re not alone”
The benefits of aqua boxing extend beyond its ability to help ease Parkinson’s symptoms.
Recently, participant David Schink began limiting his speech, thinking not talking would help salvage the mouth muscles that Parkinson’s were weakening. But Fight Back UH20 instructors advised him the opposite was actually more beneficial, so Schink returned to his natural demeanor.
“Dad, you’re 1,000 percent better; you’re back to your old self,” Schink, holding back tears, recalled his son saying recently.
Daviau said recently he asked if anybody else had trouble swallowing, which led to the others to tips and recommendations for medications that may help.
“The one thing that is really good for this program is that they’re not alone,” Groel said.
Daviau echoed Groel.
“I just like being around people that are in the same boat,” he said.