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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A loud signal beeps, indicating it’s time to switch stations. The room buzzes with activity as people shuffle to various stations: ladder drills, punching bags, battle ropes.
Tom Covey, M.D., gears up for a punch, sending the bag shuttering against the force and earning a clap of appreciation from the exercise physiology student he’s paired with. Dr. Covey isn’t an aspiring boxer or a former champion. He’s a retired physician on a mission to improve his health after receiving a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Like his fellow classmates in West Virginia University’s Boxing for Power program, he’s hoping to counteract the effects of Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements affecting both balance and coordination.
The classes are offered through the School of Medicine’s Human Performance Lab, and pair exercise physiology and physical therapy students and faculty with clients to improve client physical health and well-being.
Organizers say that student participation not only increases interest in the healthcare professions but also provides current professional students the opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration as well as ensures this model has the strength to endure.
The twice-weekly classes are modeled after a typical, 50-minute boxing session with a warm-up, five to seven different “rounds” of tasks and a cool down.
“This class is more than just punching and blocking, it’s about balance,” Dave Donley, associate professor of exercise physiology, said. “Clients with Parkinson’s are often at risk for falls, so introducing them to boxing can be extremely beneficial to their overall function and mobility.”
Donley says the class can be a “hard sell” to clients at the onset because it can feel daunting for anyone to start a new wellness program, let alone those already dealing with a diagnosis in their daily lives.
In addition to improving the physical health of clients, the Boxing for Power classes act as a support group for clients and their families as they learn new ways to work through their diagnosis.
“I wasn’t too interested in the idea of it at first,” Dr. Covey said with a shrug and a smile. “But the team showed me that boxing is a good form of exercise and therapy. This class has helped me get around better – making it a little easier to go up the stairs and get in and out of cars.”
Those small changes to daily life can make a big impact on the patients and students alike, according to Lauren Dart, an exercise physiology master’s student.
“For people with Parkinson’s, functionality is different day-to-day,” said Dart. “We get to celebrate with clients as they progress on their good days and we get to be there for them on their bad days.”
That support system is something the clients feel throughout the program.
“It is comforting to be in a class with other patients with Parkinson’s,” Firdoss Sarwari, a client in the Boxing for Power class, said. “We learn how others get along with their symptoms and how to overcome challenges around them.”
“I get to see clients progress and get better through exercise,” Dart said. “Seeing those changes and their impact has made me a more compassionate provider.”
WVU’s Boxing for Power program was founded by physical therapists Josh McGough, DPT, and Cheryl Brandmeir, PT, out of their passion for exercise as a form of therapy.
Brandmeir says the program plays a key role in the Parkinsons’ community.
“In a region where specialized medical care is scarce, access to early treatment is important,” she said. “Boxing with Power provides early access to a supervised exercise program, social support, and professionals with knowledge and experience in Parkinson’s disease.”
For more information about WVU’s Exercise Physiology or Physical Therapy programs, visit medicine.wvu.edu/students.
For more information about the Human Performance Lab and the Boxing for Power class, call 304-293-5497.