Boxing champ helps Parkinson's patients fight disease

The men and women slipping on gloves at the University of Hard Knocks boxing gym are doing so because their lives depend on it. Lauren Zakalik has the story.

FORT WORTH – Boxing is a sport that relies on reflex, rhythm, steadiness, and stability. They are the very skills people like Suzanne Maxwell are trying not to lose.

"Trying to stay coordinated, which is very hard," Maxwell said as she practiced her technique.

On this particular Wednesday morning, the men and women slipping on gloves at the University of Hard Knocks boxing gym in west Fort Worth are doing so because their lives depend on it.

"I'm trying to do something to prolong symptoms. And it's working," Maxwell said.

It's a class full of people with Parkinson's disease. Here in the gym, their shaky hands and rigid bodies find the strength to push back against the nervous system disorder that grips them.

The man helping them do that is former world champion boxer Paulie Ayala.

Ayala says he never thought this is where he'd be, training people with the disease, yet here he is, running the program he calls Punching Out Parkinson's. He says it started years ago, when a woman approached him about training people with the disease, which affects about 1 million Americans.

"I just thought I was doing my little good deed of the day," Ayala said. "Now, we're four years later with about 90 people. We do about 350-to-400 sessions a month." His Parkinson's clients ages range from their 40s to 90 years old.

It turns out, many of the skills he teaches his able-bodied boxers are just what Parkinson's patients need.

"Sparring like that helps improve balance, and keeps them independent and from falling," said Dr. Amir Akhter, a neurologist at the Medical Center of Arlington.

Dr. Akhter says activities like boxing — as long as they're safe — are proven to enhance strength, stability, and stamina. But perhaps more importantly, it may keep Parkinson's at bay.

"Exercise actually helps in slowing the progression of the disease down," Dr. Akhter said.

Murray Zoota, a 70-year-old former banker, says he is living proof.

"With Parkinson's, there are good days and bad days," he says. But thanks to boxing, he says the bad days aren't unbearable.

"I think it's done a lot of good," Murray's wife, Eleanor, said. "Don't get me wrong, it's been ups and downs and stuff, but never when it comes to boxing."

In Murray's healthier days, the Zootas walked the Great Wall of China. Now, walking his neighborhood would be nearly impossible if it weren't for boxing.

"I'm stronger. I've gained strength from lifting weights and punching bags," he said.

Not to mention, two years after his diagnosis, and he is still taking just one medication a day. That's a rarity in Parkinson's.

"It just helps him move. They just have to move!" Eleanor said. "So he needs the boxing."

But for Murray and others, it's not just the physical benefits they reap in the ring. It's the emotional ones, too.

It's the little moments of humanity in a disease that strips away your dignity. It's the camaraderie these patients have found in each other, in what's otherwise a very isolating diagnosis.

It's given Paulie Ayala a purpose, too.

"It took me a while to notice what I was doing, and this is where I was supposed to be," he said, adding this feels like his calling. "I don't think anything in my life has happened by coincidence."

It may not have been his intended path, but these people are forever grateful to the boxer who's given them the tools they need to fight for their lives.

For more information about Punching Out Parkinson's, click here.


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