'It Keeps Me Focused' — Boxing Classes Help Fight Symptoms of Parkinson's

Feb 10, 2017

Most Americans don’t get enough exercise, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. And those over the age of 65 are the least likely to get with the program.

But for one couple in Topsham, exercise is more important than ever, as an antidote to a progressive disease.

This is the third story in our series "In This Life."

For most of his 80 years, Ted Reese has embraced a central guiding philosophy:

“Well, let me put it this way — a day without exercise is a day without sunshine,” he says.

And Reese has made sure to get his daily dose through one sport in particular: wrestling. He started when he was 12 and went on to compete at Yale and the Marine Corps. He was a spotter for the U.S. Olympic team, and has been called a pioneer of the sport in Maine after starting a few high school championship wrestling programs, as well as the men’s program at the University of Southern Maine.

But recently, Reese has picked up a new form of exercise. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he boxes at the YMCA in Brunswick.

Make no mistake, he still considers wrestling a superior sport. He boxes for a different reason: This is a class specifically designed for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“With the high-intensity exercise, it actually has a dopamine release in the brain,” says Zach Hartman, an exercise physiologist with Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick who helps lead the boxing classes, called Rock Steady Boxing. “That’s part of the reason why people develop Parkinson’s. They don’t have that dopamine release, and they have lower amounts of dopamine released from the brain. So that high-intensity exercise actually produces more dopamine, and helps relieve some of the symptoms.”

Rock Steady Boxing isn’t contact boxing. Instead, Reese and others in the class cycle through stations: throwing jabs into punching bags, an instructor’s mitts or into small speed bags. It’s 70 seconds on, 30 seconds rest.

At the speed bag, Reese waits a few moments in between each strike for the bag to slow down so he can make a solid hit.

“This takes coordination. At 80 years old, and Parkinson’s, coordination’s not there as much as it should be,” he says.

The coordination may not be what it used to be for Reese, but he has retained the toned physique of a lifelong athlete, and can still drop down into a straight-as-a-board plank that puts those decades his junior to shame.

Still, the Parkinson’s is frustrating. He’s not as quick as he used to be. And, surprisingly, says his wife, Lynn, he’s not as motivated.

“Sometimes he just doesn’t feel like moving. It’s insidious, it really is a very insidious, terrible disease,” she says. “Because you take someone who’s very active, and all of sudden he just doesn’t feel like it. So I say, ‘We’re going.’"

Ted Reese with his wife, Lynn.
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

“Notice she says ‘we’re’ going. Because, as she’s been in all parts of my life, she’s been a huge part of it. Without her, I’d be sitting at home, trembling. But I’m not,” Ted says.

Lynn makes sure that her husband gets to class every week, and coaches him along as he practices agility and strength exercises, such as throwing a weighted ball against a wall.

The goal of this class is to stave off the symptoms of Parkinson’s. And Lynn says Ted’s doctors believe that his lifelong commitment to exercise likely kept the disease at bay. Even though he was first diagnosed about a dozen years ago, it took about ten years for the disease to manifest.

“That’s why we keep exercising, because we’re afraid to stop,” Lynn says.

Reese has only been doing the boxing class for a couple months, in addition to his own weightlifting and isokinetic exercises. He thinks it’s helping — not just physically, but in other ways.

“The exercise is helpful. More important, seeing other people have similar problems. Not the same problems, but similar problems,” he says.

Ted Reese at Rock Steady Boxing in Brunswick.
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

“Because your vision of Parkinson’s is the guy sitting in the wheelchair drooling, frozen. And to be around people where this is not the way they’re treated, and they’re all active, so it gives you hope,” Lynn says.

For Ted, there’s no other option but to keep exercising.

“It keeps me focused. It keeps me more alive at 80 than a lot of people are at 50,” he says.

“In This Life” is made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.