Fit For You: Boxing Against Parkinson's Disease

Apr 30, 2018

Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerative neurological condition that causes patients to lose muscle and body control over time.  It can start out as something as simple as a limp, progress to tremors, and can eventually leave a patient entirely incapacitated.

While doctors and hospitals can offer medications, surgery, and physical therapy - some people diagnosed with the disease look for a supportive group environment with others who see Parkinson’s as just one part of their lives. 

One Milwaukee group is fighting to stave the disease off with a punching bag.

"What we do know, as far as Parkinson's is concerned, is that forced intense exercise (exercising beyond a volunteer rate) is sort of the sweet spot for helping to stop the progression of the disease," Darrell Jack says. He's owner of Fast Forward Fitness and a coach for Rock Steady Boxing.

At the gym, he says, "We'll work on core exercises, we'll work on foot work, we'll work on hand-eye coordination, speed of movement - all the things you would see (boxers) taking on. And it just happens to be people with Parkinson's who are doing these exercises."

However, Jack adds that while every exercise is done safely and under the supervision of coaches, the coaches do not give their boxers special treatment.

Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Cricket Kriehn, also known as Bionic Woman at the gym, was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the age of 30.

"I started limping with my leg and I went to many doctors, took many medications, had an MRI and they told me I have Parkinson's," she recalls.

When Kriehn was first diagnosed, she says there was a lot of overwhelming information and not much hope for a quality life. "They give you this book about everything you want to know about Parkinson's, but they make you feel like you're going to be a vegetable. So it was really scary."

Rock Steady Boxing coach Darrell Jack and Cricket Kriehn.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Over the course of her diagnosis, Kriehn has experienced being in a wheel chair and surgical therapy. Now, she says, with the help of Rock Steady she has regained even more mobility and stability. "(I've gained more) balance, and you get to act like a little kid and have fun. And the coaches are awesome and it wakes you up."

Rock Steady Boxing programs organize their groups by differing levels of physical capabilities, but Jack notes that every single person has gone from varying levels of doubt to confidence.  

"One of the biggest challenges we face as coaches is getting the opportunity to take somebody from a point where they don't feel that they can do something and challenging it to prove to themselves that they can do it," he says. "I would say 9.9 times out of ten, everybody's been able to rise to the occasion."

For Kriehn, what is even more valuable than the physical gains is the comradery she experiences in class. "It's awesome. It makes you feel like you're not alone. You're helping other people because you see all kinds of development and you complain about it to a person who knows what you're going through...you have company."

Credit Audrey Nowakowski