Personal trainer Brad Parker uses boxing to combat Parkinson’s disease.
By Shane Sharp
For most of us, it’s hard to point to a single day in our existence that’s irrevocably life-changing. For Sea Pines Country Club personal trainer Brad Parker, such a day is crystal clear in his mind, and serves as his “why” each and every morning.
Two years ago, a club member contacted Parker to schedule what he thought would be a routine fitness assessment that would lead to a customized program to help meet her fitness goals. As it turns out, the appointment was anything but routine.
The member had Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that starts gradually with small tremors but progresses to become debilitating and often deadly. Hall of Fame boxer Muhammad Ali suffered from Parkinson’s before his death in 2016, as does Back to the Future and Spin City star Michael J. Fox.
“As soon as our meeting was over, I read everything about Parkinson’s I could get my hands on,” Parker says. “I did some research and discovered I could get certified through a Parkinson’s-related organization to provide persons with the disease with specific fitness training.”
More than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s, and 60,000 are diagnosed with the disease each year in the U.S. Only four percent of those with Parkinson’s are under age 50, and the vast majority are over 60. Based on his research and demographics, it didn’t take Parker long to surmise that other Sea Pines Country Club members could be living with Parkinson’s.
“We did a seminar here at the club, and 15 or 16 members showed up,” Parker says. “I had no idea there’d be so many. On a scale of one to 10, 10 being the worst, there were ones and 10s. But the common theme is that exercise is a major part of their existence.”
In fact, exercise is the single most important thing those with Parkinson’s can do to manage their symptoms and regain control of their lives, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Parker had read about the benefits of boxing in particular, so he integrated the pugilistic pursuit into his training regime from the onset.
“They love hitting the mitts and the footwork required, and they can be expressive when they are punching,” Parker says. “With Parkinson’s, you never know what’s going on behind their eyes because their expressions don’t give it away. Boxing is loud, live and they just love it.”
The two major causes of death for those with Parkinson’s are falls and pneumonia, according to Health Union. People with it are at higher risk of falling, and serious falls that require surgery carry the risk of infection, adverse events with medication and anesthesia, heart failure, and blood clots from immobility.
In other words, Parker’s work with his clients could be a matter of life and death.
“The preventive part of it is powerful, but with boxing it’s also about giving them a sense of pride and confidence in learning a new sport,” Parker says. “I help them figure out what they want to pursue — like boxing, golf or riding horses — not just what they don’t want to lose.”
Tough road back
And Parker knows a thing or two about losing. After playing sports his entire life, he developed end-stage renal disease in his 30s, leading to complete kidney failure. He had his first kidney transplant in 1998 and a second one in 2008.
“I learned what it was like to be sick and completely broken down,” he says. “I started the long journey back after my second transplant, and in 2011, I kicked it into a higher gear. With kidney function it is all about the numbers, and my numbers were finally good.”
Parker’s wife encouraged him to leave the mortgage business to pursue his passion of becoming a personal trainer. The couple then moved from Charlotte to Hilton Head Island, where Parker believed he’d have ample opportunities to work with seniors.
“I learned a lot from my daughter, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27 years old,” Parker says. “Once the cancer was removed and she was cleared, she got no direction on what she should do after that. I wanted to give people here coming off of hip or knee replacements or recovering from cancer a next step and clear path forward.”
Putting Parkinson’s on the ropes
Boxing classes typically last 30 to 60 minutes and are designed to tackle symptoms in multiple ways. For example, warm-up exercises stretch muscles and relieve stiffness. Hitting heavy bags builds power and strength. Punching speed bags improves hand-eye coordination and posture. To stimulate cognitive processing, a trainer may hold “focus mitts” as targets and bark out varied instructions — “right, left, uppercut!” Shouting exercises and loud counting work on soft-voice disorders is common in people with Parkinson’s disease. Calisthenics and isometric exercises build extremity and core strength critical for posture and gait. Footwork and drills such as moving sideways, jumping rope, or walking on a two-by-four improve balance and agility. Group games that involve tossing footballs, medicine balls, beach balls, or Frisbees encourage socialization and improve reaction time.
After working with his first Parkinson’s client, Parker began making connections in the Parkinson’s community on and off the island. He eventually made his way to Scott Rider, whose “I will never quit” mantra and YouTube Channel has become a rallying cry for those suffering from the disease.
A three-time Big 10 Champion and two-time All-American in track and field at Ohio State, Rider was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005. Parker was delighted to learn that fitness remained a major emphasis in Rider’s life and invited him to speak to Sea Pines Country Club members at the aforementioned seminar in February 2020.
“It was amazing to see, and based on the statistics, there are probably more members with Parkinson’s we don’t know about,” Parker says. “We really want to encourage them to come out and work with us. And Scott and I plan on doing more together soon once it is safe and we can do more group activities.”
Knowing this dynamic duo, you’d better not bet against it. For more information about Sea Pines Country Club, its fitness programs and health and wellness focus, visit seapinescountryclub.com.