Fighting Parkinsons

Raphael Butler demonstrates a punching combo for the class during drills. 125 Live hosts a boxing class for improved neurological function, led by Butler, a Rochester boxing legend. (Ken Klotzbach/kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

After several minutes of stretching while seated in chairs, members of Raphael Butler's boxing class put aside their canes and water bottles, and grabbed pairs of boxing gloves.

"Find the bag that's going to be your buddy for the next half-hour," Butler told the class. They selected their punching bags, got some quick instructions from Butler, and went to work, throwing jabs and uppercuts.

Of course, not every punch was forceful or swift, and some arms wavered now and then. That's because all of the boxers in Butler's class at 125 Live have Parkinson's Disease. They suffer from some of the typical symptoms of the disease: tremors, diminished balance and coordination, loss of agility and poor hand-eye coordination.

"I've seen a lot of improvement in them," said Butler, who has been teaching the class since July. He pointed to class member Bob McKay, and said, "He's become a firecracker at the bag."

Boxing is increasingly being hailed as a positive form of exercise for Parkinson's patients. "It tests balance, agility and hand-eye coordination, all of which can be affected by Parkinson's," states the Michael J. Fox Foundation website. "It also can build muscle strength, potentially help speech … and even offer an outlet for frustration toward symptoms or disease."

"Boxing is being recognized as a great benefit for people with Parkinson's," said Vern Bushlack, a retired teacher who has been attending Butler's weekly class. "It certainly hasn't hurt me, and I hope it will do some good."

Bushlack was diagnosed with Parkinson's 12 years ago, and he said he's hopeful the boxing workouts will slow the progress of the disease.

Butler's routine is to have the class work at the punching bags for two minutes at a time, followed by a brief rest. Before each period, he gives the boxers a brief demonstration of the manner and order in which he wants punches to be thrown.

It's a good workout, even for those in tip-top shape.

"People don't realize how long two minutes is until you start punching," Butler said.

Butler, who enjoyed a successful career as a professional heavyweight boxer (35 wins, including 28 by knockout), said that Ken Baerg, operations director at 125 Live, proposed the class to him.

"He asked me if I'd be part of it, and I said, 'Of course I would,'" Butler said. "The whole point for me is to give back to the community, so it wasn't even a debate."

Butler spent some time studying Parkinson's Disease, its typical symptoms, and what physicians recommend for physical activity. "I tailored my class around that," he said.

"I've seen progress in the class every week," he said. "For me, it's exciting. I was nervous at the start."

The same could be said about his patients. "It's better than I thought it would be," said John McCoy.

SueAnn Collinge, a Parkinson's patient for four years, said she joined 125 Live just to take Butler's class. "I've heard that boxing is good for you, so I thought I'd try it," she said.

There are two more sessions left — Aug. 17 and Aug. 24 — in Butler's class, but he indicated he will offer it again.

"I definitely plan to keep doing it," he told the class members as they sampled coffee and bagels afterward. "I enjoy it, and as long as you guys keep coming, I'm going to keep doing it."

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Life Reporter

Tom covers primarily arts and entertainment for the Post Bulletin and 507 Magazine. He also often writes feature stories about local history. He is a native of Milwaukee, WI, and enjoys reading and traveling.