Parkinson’s patients taking punches at the disease during weekly boxing classes

Longtime nurse and program co-founder says boxing is a proven way to help Parkinson’s patients

SAN ANTONIO – Hand tremors, slow movement, stiffness, and loss of balance are all symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

The neurological disease has no cure, but patients in San Antonio are finding a way to keep it at bay.

They're fighting it with hard punches that soften the physical, emotional and mental toll.

Leo Zuniga knows his way around a boxing gym. He used to train amateur and professional boxers.

“I’ve been doing it on and off since 1982,” Zuniga said, standing next to a punching bag at Box Beat gym on the North Side, a class in session around him.

In 2011, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but he followed the lesson he always taught his students: success only comes with tireless perseverance.

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So he boxes alongside people he can relate to. Almost everyone in his class has Parkinson’s.

“All ages. One gentleman here is 82-years-old,” said Dianne Johnson, a registered nurse who has worked with movement disorders for 25 years.

“With Parkinson’s, they have a lack of dopamine, which is a neurochemical. So by doing strenuous exercise, raising the heart rate, doing big movements, stretching your arms, stretching your legs, that helps to increase the amount of dopamine that’s circulating in your brain,” Johnson said.

She found research proving boxing was the best type of exercise, so three years ago, she teamed up with patient Raul Garza to start the Punch Out Parkinson's program.

Local gym owners and trainers were so supportive, they began offering free classes.

When co-founder Raul Garza was diagnosed in 2010, he found it hard to stay positive, knowing there was no cure. But, starting the boxing program changed that.

“Gives you something to do, gives you something to look forward to. You forget a lot and all of the sudden you start trembling and it comes back to you. ‘That’s right I do have Parkinson’s,’” Garza said.

Zuniga punches the bags like they are the disease.

The trainer, Adrian Rodriguez, used to be his student. Now, the roles have been swapped.

It's an honor for Rodriguez to help heal his own coach, and watch the entire class fill each other with hope.

"It is a support group. We have a camaraderie that we build over time," Zuniga said.

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The free classes are for patients and their families or caregivers. They are held three times a week, at two different gyms.

The group also holds a traditional support session the second Saturday of every month at UT Health San Antonio’s main campus in the Medical Center.

Anyone who wants to get more information is encouraged to call Raul Garza at (210) 827-5949.

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