A group of men stands in a loose semicircle on a blue mat in Element Athletix gym in Meridian as instructor and owner Scott Anderson explains their routine.
The men listen intently but no one is standing still — one man shuffles in his socks, another’s arm shakes as if he’s warding off an insect, yet another’s hand tremors as he raises it to ask a question.
Two Boise State University undergraduate students armed with clipboards stand to the side with Pennie Seibert, a BSU psychology professor and chief research scientist for the Research Institute at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. They are observing the men’s involuntary movements, as they have done for the past nine months.
These men aren’t looking to regain the lost abs of their youth. They have Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder that affects the central nervous system and includes physical symptoms such as hand tremors, shaking and difficulty walking. These symptoms take an emotional toll as Parkinson’s patients often lose confidence in their ability to navigate through the world safely by themselves or to even eat without assistance.
“It’s a disease that that doesn’t adhere to a particular ethnic or economic group. It strikes everyone, and no one knows for sure what causes it,” Seibert explained. “It might be associated with genetics or toxic materials, but we don’t really know how it all starts.”
As Anderson finishes explaining the workout, the men spread out, strap on boxing gloves and take their positions: legs braced in a boxer’s stance, fists raised in front of their faces to protect from imaginary blows. Slowly, the men begin shadow boxing — never making physical contact with anything — and as they do, their tremors subside.
Seibert and her students, junior biology student Eric Jones and senior biology student Colleen Calzacorta, take careful notes on the stances and movements to record the changes they see taking place. This is the crux of their yearlong pilot study: Can mimicking the movements of boxers help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s?
“We have an individual with Parkinson’s and other health issues who had to use a walker, but about two weeks ago, he stopped using his walker completely,” Jones said. “He’s done very well, and he’s able to do more and more each time he comes to the gym. That’s just one example of what we’re seeing.”
Seibert got the idea while watching the CBS “Sunday Morning” show, where an Indianapolis gym was featured for its work teaching boxing moves to people with Parkinson’s. The so-called Rock Steady program was so fascinating that Seibert promptly got on a plane to Indianapolis to see it for herself.
“I went and interviewed trainers, participants. I interviewed their caregivers, and I was impressed by their comments — they talked about getting their lives back,” said Seibert, who has worked on Parkinson’s-related research for more than a decade. “The problem is there hasn’t been any comprehensive research done trying to show efficacy of the program. It’s primarily anecdotal information. I wanted to know: Can we objectively show efficacy?”
That is what her study seeks to establish. As far as its participants are concerned, the outcomes have been positive — so positive that the program has been growing by word of mouth alone. It started with six participants last summer and has now grown to 12 patients. Seibert credits the study’s growth to Anderson’s leadership in the gym.
“One of the reasons our study works so well is because of the interactions they have with Scott,” Seibert said. “They trust him, and they’ll try what he’s asking him to do, even if they’re apprehensive about some of the movements.”
Anderson now hosts shadow-boxing classes four times per week; participants are encouraged to come twice a week. He and his trainers modify all of the movements to fit each individual’s abilities as their range of motion and equilibrium are not the same.
After the boxing lesson, Seibert and her students will individually interview the men, Anderson and his fellow trainers — as well as the men’s caretakers — about their physical progress. The participants also are assessed using regular measures of Parkinson’s and athletic benchmarks that Anderson has developed.
“Part of what we’re asking them is, ‘What do you think are the challenges in this?’ ” Seibert said. “ ‘What are the most difficult things in the programs to do? What changes happen the fastest? What do you think about this program? Is it working?’ ”
Said 67-year-old Michael Mongelli: “I’ve been coming for over a month, and I’m feeling differences. My energy level is significantly higher. I’ve noticed my posture is better, which is good because I have back problems. They’re incremental but they’re there, and I notice them because it’s my body.”
There is an emotional component as well.
“Being part of a group like this, feeling this dynamic, has greatly helped me and my moods,” said John Terrell, who is one of the original participants. He noted that his strength and endurance have improved.
“I see it changing the quality of life, helping them move better. It’s like a support group and exercise group all in one,” Anderson said. “Everyone who’s come in here has some type of improvement, and we haven’t had someone fall for 12 weeks. That sounds silly, but it’s a win.”
Stage one of the pilot study will conclude this summer, but Seibert said it’s far from over. She would like to expand the study to include neurologists, physical therapists and occupational therapists who could administer regular medical assessments of the boxers’ progress and eventually track brain changes associated with the program.
“What we think might be happening is that the movements are retraining the brain on how to respond to the Parkinson’s,” she said. “But what’s most exciting — and vital — at this stage is that the program keeps growing, and our participants say it is changing their lives for the better.”
Cienna Madrid is a communications specialist in Boise State’s Office of Communications and Marketing. Learn more about Boise State at BoiseState.edu.
Interested in joining the study?
To learn more about how to join the Parkinson’s study, please contact researcher Pennie Seibert at firstname.lastname@example.org.