When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Jennifer Parkinson decided to come out swinging.
Parkinson, a Newbury Park resident, was diagnosed with the condition when she was 32. She’d started showing symptoms two years before that, and by the time she was diagnosed she could barely walk and had to leave her career as a nurse because of the disease’s tremors.
Now 45, Parkinson moves with confidence and ease while she leads boxing classes four days a week.
“I do take medication, but I was taking medication before (I started boxing) and I was having to take more and more of it. I still have a tremor. I still have the freezing episodes,” she said. “I still had the same symptoms, but it was after I started boxing that it kind of helped prolong the effectiveness of the medication. Eventually I wasn’t having to take as much.”
In 2016, she and a partner founded Neuroboxing, a nonprofit that teaches non-contact boxing to people with Parkinson’s disease. The organization offers five classes a week at Agoura Fitness on Roadside Drive in Agoura Hills.
“The intense-force exercise is the key for why boxing works for Parkinson’s disease. You’re being pushed a little bit harder and a little bit longer to do the activity,” Parkinson said. “We found that with that intense-force exercise, it actually improves a lot of the motor functions. Speech is louder and clearer, movement is better. That’s what I found for myself as well.”
Parkinson’s disease is progressive— it starts with mild tremors and over time it makes muscles so rigid a person can’t stand. It can cause depression and dementia.
After she was diagnosed, Parkinson researched treatments. She learned about an Indiana-based program, Rock Steady Boxing, that taught boxing to Parkinson’s patients. It was the only one of its kind in the country. Parkinson took the idea and ran with it.
“I started working with a trainer locally. I was doing Muay-Thai and kickboxing. It was really difficult,” Parkinson said. “It was me working out with guys that were fighters training to get in the ring that weekend. It was very, very high intensity. But as the weeks and months went by and I kept doing more and more, my energy level started to improve, I started moving better. Several times a day I’d have episodes where I felt like I couldn’t move at all. As I was working out more that started getting better, and eventually they kind of went away.”
Parkinson connected with Rock Steady Boxing in 2013, became a certified boxing coach and opened an affiliate organization in Costa Mesa. She started a Parkinson’s disease-focused boxing program at a gym in Newbury Park in 2014 with her future Neuroboxing co-founder, Josh Ripley.
The two founded the organization as a way to provide more resources to clients.
“What I had found was that a lot of people were needing a lot of support. They needed resources, they needed more information, and the class just wasn’t enough to sustain what we needed to provide,” Parkinson said. “I also wanted to be able to work with other people who had MS (or other conditions). I wanted to be able to expand it so I could help a lot of other people too.”
Now they offer six classes a week—five in Agoura and one in Woodland Hills. Parkinson said they have 20 to 35 people in a class, depending on the intensity. Different classes cater to people with different progressions of the disease. Most clients have Parkinson’s disease, but some attendees are dealing with multiple sclerosis or are recovering from a stroke.
Neuroboxing is a small organization, run mostly by volunteers. There are only three employees: Parkinson, Ripley and Julianne Hoehn, a certified neuroboxing trainer.
Hoehn’s been with the program since the beginning. She trained with Ripley and said that when she learned about Neuroboxing she knew she wanted to be a part of it, even though she didn’t know much about Parkinson’s disease at the time. In the two years since, she’s learned about the disease and how it affects people beyond the physical symptoms.
“On top of the physical changes that you see, you also see the community that a lot of people with Parkinson’s have. The disease also takes away their social life,” Hoehn said. “They’ve become more reclusive, they don’t reach out to their community and we offer a place where, on a daily basis, we get 20 to 30 people all with Parkinson’s disease coming together to fight back. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen. Even though I don’t have the disease, no one in my family does, just giving them a community is helping.”