Boxing program for Parkinson’s patients continues to grow, keeping disease progression at bay

Punch Out Parkinson’s program helps people maintain physical, vocal, mental abilities

SAN ANTONIO – Michael Shelburne was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2017. When he found the Punch Out Parkinson’s boxing program, he joined immediately.

“They say exercise is the only thing that slows down Parkinson’s,” Shelburne said.

Parkinson’s is a terminal neurological disease that causes tremors and physical, vocal, and mental decline.

“You have to use it, or you lose it. You have to be proactive,” said Henrik Palme, who takes the class each week.

Palme was also diagnosed seven years ago, and he believes the boxing class slows the progression of his disease.

Diane Johnson, the Punch Out Parkinson’s co-founder, is a registered nurse who has worked with movement disorders for 25 years.

“I learned about boxing when I was at a conference, and I said, ‘When I retire, this is something I want to do.’ So I went and got trained in Indiana,” Johnson said.

She said boxing is specifically suitable for Parkinson’s because it mandates big motor movements and increases the dopamine patients lose.

“You have to outstretch your arms. You have to lift your legs, increase your heart rate. It’s crucial to increase the heart rate,” Johnson said.

Co-founder Raul Garza said their program consults with local doctors.

“The doctors we’re working with are movement disorder specialists and there’s only like five or six in San Antonio. They are neurologists, but they’re also specialists with extra training,” Garza said.

The boxing coaches are specialists of their own kind. They are Golden Glove coaches who train state and regional champions.

Coach Adrian Rodriguez, who everyone calls “Coach AD,” lost a family member to Parkinson’s. He studied the disease and learned how his expertise could help, and for five years, he has offered his time and skills for free.

“I started doing research and started putting more programs together, doing something functional that helps them with the actual disease, with the dopamine, help with their pushing, their squatting, getting off the toilet or their chair by themselves,” Rodriguez said.

That includes delaying loss of vocal cord movement in Parkinson’s patients.

“Right now, they’re doing a sound drill so they can have their vocals and they don’t lose their voice,” Rodriguez said, explaining how the disease forces their voices to fade slowly.

Doing squats against the wall, Coach AD had the athletes counting down, yelling each number out loud.

It’s not all physical, though. The time is spent tapping into emotional health as well.

“They throw on their own music from when they were kids, and it just takes them back to their youth, giving them that hit of dopamine,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez doesn’t walk on eggshells around people with Parkinson’s, as he said many people do.

“We’re being brutally honest with them sometimes, like, ‘You’re going to walk. You’re not going to have shuffle feet. You’re going to talk. We’re going to push you harder. I want to hear your voice. You will not lose your voice,’” he said.

That keeps the patients mentally tough, which is necessary when fighting a terminal illness.

“It’s the mental — that ‘I can still accomplish this,’” Shelburne said.

“It’s a terrible disease. However, you can make it better by being proactive,” Palme said.

That is one of the many reasons the program has grown to 60 people.

During the pandemic, classes were held at Hardberger Park to ensure everyone stayed in shape. Plus, the Box Beat gym, where the classes are now held, recently had a makeover to accommodate large groups like this.

The group has become a family full of members who truly understand each other.

“The best thing about it — I’ve met a lot of special people that are dealing with the same kind of thing that I’m dealing with, and that makes it even better,” Shelburne said.

Together, every week, they sweat it out and deal blows to a disease that will never define them.

The classes are from 10 to 11 a.m. Wednesday and Friday at Box Beat Gym behind the shopping center at 4553 N. Loop 1604, suite 1209.

There are still workouts from 9 to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Hardberger Park Ecological Center at 8400 NW Military Hwy.

To learn more, you can visit the program website or call 210-374-7591. The program is free for anyone with Parkinson’s disease.


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About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

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