If boxing and Parkinson’s disease are thought of together, it’s usually in terms of the former causing the latter.
But my guest today makes the case that boxing workouts can actually be used to fight Parkinson’s disease. His name is Aaron Sloan, he’s a registered nurse, the owner of Engine Room Boxing gym here in Tulsa, OK, and the founder of Ready to Fight, a boxing fitness program catered specifically to those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. We begin our conversation with an overview of what Parkinson’s is, as well as the fact that men are significantly more likely to get it than women. Aaron then shares what the research says about the best treatments for Parkinson’s, why vigorous, high-intensity exercise is one of the most potent remedies for it, and why he argues that boxing is the gold standard when it comes to the type of exercise that’s most effective in slowing down the disorder. Aaron shares how he started Ready to Fight based on this premise, and a few stories of how the lives of Parkinson’s patients and their families are being changed by the program. We then discuss whether boxing also causes Parkinson’s and how Aaron answers the criticism that he trains people in a sport that also creates the disorder he’s trying to alleviate. We end our conversation discussing what individuals with Parkinson’s can do to learn more about incorporating boxing workouts into its treatment.
- How Aaron got started with boxing and training
- How Aaron got involved working with Parkinson’s patients
- What is Parkinson’s disease? What causes it? What are the primary symptoms?
- The benefits of exercise for Parkinson’s patients
- Why boxing especially seems to have a better effect than other exercise
- The hugely important role of caregivers in the lives and treatments of Parkinson’s patients
- How boxing contributes to causing Parkinson’s
- Stories of individuals who had never boxed before and seen huge improvements
- What does a Ready to Fight (RTF) workout look like?
- The recognition that RTF is starting to get from the medical and research community
- Are there other movement disorders boxing helps with?
- What the future looks like for RTF
- What can the average listener do to get involved in their own town?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Boxing Trainer Teddy Atlas on What It Means to Be a Man
- 14 Best Boxing Movies
- Boxing: A Manly History of the Sweet Science
- A Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring
- Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World
- The Rise and Fall of the American Heavyweight Boxer
- Parkinson’s Foundation
- How to Hit the Speed Bag Like Rocky
- Micronutrients, Genetics, and Fighting Age-Related Diseases
- AoM’s Boxing for Beginners series
- AoM’s Boxing Basics series
- USA Boxing
Connect With Aaron
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. If boxing and Parkinson’s Disease are thought of together, it’s usually in the terms of the former causing the latter. But my guest today makes the case that boxing workouts can actually be sued to fight Parkinson’s Disease. His name is Aaron Sloan. He’s a registered nurse and the owner of Engine Room boxing gym here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the founder of Ready to Fight boxing fitness program, catered specifically to those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.
We begin our conversation with an overview of what Parkinson’s is, as well as the fact that men are significantly more likely to get it than women. Aaron then shares what the research says about the best treatments for Parkinson’s, why vigorous, high-intensity exercise is one of the most potent remedies for it, and why he argues that boxing is the gold standard when it comes to the type of exercise that’s most effective in slowing down the disorder.
Aaron shares how he started Ready to Fight based on this premise, and a few stories of how the lives of Parkinson’s patients and their families are being changed by the program. We then discuss whether boxing also causes Parkinson’s and how Aaron answers the criticism that he trains people in a sport that also creates the disorder he’s trying to alleviate.
We end our conversation discussing what individuals with Parkinson’s can do to learn more about incorporating boxing workouts into its treatment. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/ReadyToFight.
All right. Aaron Sloan, welcome to the show.
Aaron Sloan: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So, we are here at your boxing gym here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Engine Room Boxing, and we’re going to talk about boxing, but you have an interesting twist on it. But before we get to that twist, how’d you get started with boxing? What’s your story?
Aaron Sloan: Well, I think like a lot of, probably, guys that got into it, their fathers or grandfathers. My grandfather was a boxer when he was young, so he always talked about boxing and we would always watch the fights together, you know, Mike Tyson he liked. You know, I was maybe 11 or 12, went out to go to the convenient store and buy the, rent the little box you bring home and put on the TV and watch the fights. So, you know, of course anything, he was kind of my hero and I looked up to him. So, anything that he was into, that’s kind of what I was into.
I was always interested and curious about, we were just kind of, the background that I came from, we were just kind of mean, rough little kids anyway. We’d get out in the yard and box with the little Sugar Ray Leonard boxing gloves, and wrapped my grandma’s dish towels around our hands and boxed in the yard.
So, that kind of got my interest up and as I got older and wanted to pursue that, I started seeking out local boxing gyms, and probably started when I was around … I think I started actually boxing when I was 17.
Brett McKay: Did you ever compete?
Aaron Sloan: Yeah. I competed for about four and a half years, only amateurs. I never did any pro stuff. Boxed at the North Tulsa Boxing Club here in Tulsa and my trainer was Ed Duncan, who’s a decently known coach, especially around here. He trained Quick Tillis and Dale Cook and some of our other bigger name guys that’s actually came out of Oklahoma.
Brett McKay: And, so when did you transition from fighting to training? When did that happen?
Aaron Sloan: I was boxing at a early age, and looking back on it now, I understand that- We didn’t travel a lot, because our coaches and our program didn’t have much money to travel. So, I did a lot of training and didn’t get a whole lot of fights. We didn’t travel nationally or anything like that. So, I got a decent job in sales and that took a lot of time, so I just kind of phased myself out of the boxing, even though I wanted to do it and continue to do it. It was just more of a hobby for me. I didn’t have grand aspirations of going on and being a world champion fighter or anything like that. I just enjoyed the sport.
So, got involved in sales and fast forward several, ten years ahead, and decided to go to nursing school when the construction market slowed down. I sold industrial supplies sales. So, that slowed down and I ended up putting myself through nursing school and getting out of that, wanting to kind of exercise and stuff, and I started thinking about boxing again. I didn’t want to, of course, was too old to compete. I was maybe, I think 35. I’ve been in it ten years now, so about 35 years old. I thought, “Well, maybe if I start coaching some kids or something like that, it would get me my fix for boxing and get that part of it, kind of let me play a little bit in the sport again.”
So, I rented like a little, basically like a storage building, storage unit in Owasso, outside of Tulsa. Opened it up, hung a few bags in it and put an ad in the paper, and the next thing you know we had a lot of schoolkids coming.
Brett McKay: So, you started training schoolkids, but then you started training a different type of client. And this was clients with Parkinson’s Disease. How did that happen? And we’re going to talk about this program you developed, it’s a boxing program for Parkinson’s patients. But, how did you start training people with Parkinson’s Disease in boxing?
Aaron Sloan: You know, I told you we started the gym in Owasso, and it was mostly just training, like I said, competitive kids to box. But, by time I was there for a few years, we had people asking to maybe do some fitness training. I had a girl that I’d worked with that had cerebral palsy, actually, out there. And so, having my nursing background then and then doing this boxing, it was kind of in the back of my head to do something a little more health-related. But, I just started on this nursing career and I just never entertained the idea of it.
So, we fast forward a few years and I just had five years of coaching experience, running the gym and kind of started deciding, I’d like to try to make a push at doing this full-time. I’d trained a few boxers that kind of made it to the national level, and I knew if I was going to coach those guys at that level, I needed to have more time to do it. I couldn’t be working part-time any more than they could be working a lot of hours, either.
So, we moved to Tulsa and we opened this facility, and I was here for about a year and one of the local doctors had a patient that had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and he had seen that exercise is one of the- we can talk about it later, but exercise is one of the main things that slows down the progression of Parkinson’s Disease.
And so, he recommended that he come to the boxing gym and get a, start training here. So, Bobby Moore is his name, and he came probably I guess maybe three and a half years ago. And I started doing personal training with him one on one, just for his fitness. I think we did maybe 24 session, and he went and visited his physical therapist, and the physical therapist had noticed such an increase in his ability that he reached out to the Parkinson’s Foundation of Oklahoma and had those guys contact me about, see if I wanted to start a class.
Brett McKay: And that’s what Ready to Fight is all about. Before we get into more about the program, sort of how you tailor the boxing program for these guys, let’s talk about Parkinson’s in general for those who aren’t too familiar with it. So, remind our listeners, what is Parkinson’s Disease? What are the symptoms? Do we know what causes it? Things like that.
Aaron Sloan: I mean, Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerative disorder, so once you get it there’s no cure for it. It’s going to continue to get worse over time. It’s a disorder that affects our central nervous system, so it primarily targets motor movement. So, anything that’s a motor movement is going to be affected by it. So, it can affect, of course, your balance, your speech, your handwriting. Usually, most people would picture Parkinson’s Disease with a tremor, of course, in one hand or sometimes both, but usually just one side.
But, there’s more of that. They picture the shaking, the rigidity, somebody like Michael J. Fox or Freddie Roach is who they think of. But there’s a lot of other things that go along with it, just as a general slowing of movement. People lose their facial expressions. Like I said, lose their speech. There’s a lot of sleep, insomnia disorder that goes along with it. And just, a lot of dementia, that can come along at a certain point in time.
Brett McKay: Do we know, does it affect men or women more? Or, is it about the same?
Aaron Sloan: No, it affects a lot more men than women. I think it’s 70%, I think’s the number that’s affecting more men compared to women. I really don’t know why it affects more men than women, but it most definitely does. Genetics can play a part in developing the disease, they know, maybe, 15%. And then chemical exposure, so there’s, if you’re exposed to a lot of pesticides or you’ve been, like, in the Gulf War, a lot of those guys that got affected by some of the chemicals and things that were used over there. But, the rest of the people, it’s kind of an unknown quantity, they really don’t know yet why it targets some people and not other.
Brett McKay: And yeah, and I mean it definitely affects significantly the quality of life of an individual.
Aaron Sloan: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Right. So, let’s talk about what the research says. So, there’s no cure for it, for Parkinson’s, but what does the research say that, what can help Parkinson’s patients?
Aaron Sloan: Well, I mean primarily we know that medication’s the frontline approach. So, Parkinson’s patients suffer from either a lack of dopamine of the ability to use it. So, a Levodopa or L-Dopa is going to be, almost every Parkinson’s patient’s going to be on dopamine. There’s surgeries and stuff, like deep brain simulation, also as well.
But, next to that, the next line of defense is exercise. So, it’s proven, without a fact, clinically that exercise slows down the progression and it helps the neuroplasticity in our brain, helps us regenerate neurons and new pathways, and it also helps the ability for us to uptake and regulate our dopamine better. And it needs to be a forced intensity exercise. Exercise is good, but when it’s a forced intensity- And when I say forced intensity, I don’t necessarily mean it has to be hard, it means that it had to be something that’s not at your own pace. So, I compare a little bit to, if you went and walked outside at your own pace, it’s not as beneficial as if I stick you on a treadmill and set you at a pace.
Brett McKay: Right.
Aaron Sloan: So, it affects the brain differently when it’s forced intensity. So, you won’t find hardly any Parkinson’s client that hasn’t recommended to exercise, and there’s a lot of forms of exercise. People do dance and they do cycling and boxing is what we’re talking about here, of course, today. But there’s a lot of different exercise that they push for clients to do.
Brett McKay: And what do you think- So, boxing is definitely, there’s a forced intensity there. I’ve done the stuff, like the heavy bag workouts, and I just want to die …
Aaron Sloan: Yeah.
Brett McKay: … after it. So there’s definitely forced intensity. But, do you think there’s something else going on with boxing, the movements you do in boxing, that sort of like, it’s like a secret sauce that can help Parkinson’s patients?
Aaron Sloan: I do. That’s what were, I think most people’s kind of coming to the consensus at that boxing’s kind of the gold standard of exercise for Parkinson’s Disease. There’s some other Parkinson’s boxing programs out there, of course, as well. We think that ours is superior because of some of the changes and things that we’ve done with it. But, I kind of tell people, I don’t know how familiar you are, or listeners are with boxing, but you said you’ve tried to box before, so you know that there’s a certain movement that goes along with that, and you see a boxer and he’s moving and it’s real fluid and it’s like watching a ballet dancer. It’s a lot of rhythm that goes along with it.
And so, when you’re a coach and you see … When I’m a coach and I see people come in, if you came through the door and you wanted me to teach you how to box, you don’t move like a boxer yet. And so, then I get a person with Parkinson’s Disease that comes in, they can’t move like a boxer yet. To me, you both have movement disorders. I mean, so I need to train both of you how to move and be balanced and fight like a fighter. So, I take that approach with all of them. It’s not, I don’t want to run a cute program that’s only just a feel good program that, “Oh yeah, we’re training Parkinson’s people to box and they just get to get by with everything.” No. If you come to me to box, I’m going to train you like you’re a fighter and I’m going to teach you how to box correctly.
And so, I think with our program it’s made a big difference, to approach at that with balance, reaction time, hand and eye coordination. And boxing’s kind of just, it’s built for Parkinson’s Disease on accident. If I put a client on a speed bag, if they’re getting the hand and eye coordination from that, it takes a lot of hand and eye coordination to do that, and nobody can hit a speed bag when they first start. It doesn’t matter if they have Parkinson’s Disease or not. But that bag, the speed bag is a forced intensity exercise because of the rhythm of it. Once you hit it, it’s going to come back and you have to hit it again. And so, it’s telling you when you’re going to hit it. You can’t make up your mind when you’re going to hit it. It only has one rhythm and you’re going to have to adapt to that rhythm in order to be able to hit it.
And, all the bags in the gym are the same way. If you hit a heavy bag, it swings. So, when it swings back, you got to hit it or you have to move or it’s going to push you off balance.
And so, the equipment in itself, you teach them the right techniques, are going to challenge the symptoms that they have.
And then, in boxing, you’re throwing a lot of, you’re doing a lot of twisting motions. So, Parkinson’s patients suffer from horrible rigidity, so they can’t twist. You’ll see them turn and they’ll turn their whole, walk their whole body around, because their neck’s stiff, their waist is stiff. They don’t have enough dopamine to allow those muscles to relax enough to do that.
So in boxing, there’s a lot of twisting motion, there’s a lot of rotation. And put you on the punching mitts, you’re going to punch when I tell you to punch. You throw the punches that I tell you to throw. You don’t get to choose which one of those punches you get to throw. So, it’s just, in that boxing’s just accidentally tailor-made for the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
Brett McKay: Has there been any research done yet on boxing and Parkinson’s?
Aaron Sloan: We haven’t been able to find, really, any research studies that’s been targeted just for that. But we have just now got IRB approval and started research on our program there through Tulsa University. So, we’ve been working on getting that approval and getting that program started for research for the last couple of years, and we just now reached that point. So, we’re kind of getting the critical mass with this program right now with our Parkinson’s program after a couple of years. So, we’re really excited. All the neurologists and the doctors think that that’s really going to bare some fruit and kind of show what we’re seeing in the gym, which is extraordinary results.
Another cool thing that I’ll make a note on with this research study is that we’re actually going to research the caregivers and the spouses. So, we’re going to see what difference this program makes in their lives, because if we can improve the quality of the patient that’s suffering from the disease and their life is a little easier and they’re easier to get around, and they’re not falling at home and they’re not doing those kind of things, it definitely makes it easier for their wife and takes a lot of stress off of them and makes their life a lot easier.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s really interesting that you guys though of that, because some people overlook the caregiver aspect of a disease, and I’m sure as a nurse, you’ve seen that firsthand how it can add a lot of stress to a family.
Aaron Sloan: Sure, and it spirals down. There is a lot of, you know, the program, the “Art of Manliness,” there is some manliness traits that comes along with men that hinder them for this. You know, it’s primarily affecting men, but the first thing these men do, especially from this generation- Most people that suffer from Parkinson’s Disease is over 60 years old. And so, you get a lot of men that, they get off balance and they’re worried about falling and their spouses are old. And so, what they’ll do is they’ll shut themselves up in the house. They won’t go to the store, because they’re afraid, “Well, what if I fall? My wife’s not going to be able get me back up or they’re not going to be able to get me to the car and she’s not going to be able to help me. I don’t want to put her in that situation.”
So, the men will just stay home and won’t leave. And so, as soon as they sit down, they go downhill quick. You have to get started on exercise fast.
Brett McKay: Right, they’re not moving.
Aaron Sloan: No, they’re not moving.
Brett McKay: They’re just making it worse.
Aaron Sloan: So, it’s a big problem and it’s a ego that is driven from that generation and from that being a man, of saying, “Well, I’m not going to put my spouse in that position.”
So, once they get in here and they get this group of guys, it’s really cool to watch. It’s really neat to watch.
Brett McKay: So, you started, four first Parkinson’s patient was three years ago? Four years ago?
Aaron Sloan: A little over three years ago.
Brett McKay: Little over three years ago. How many do you have in the program now, and ready to fight?
Aaron Sloan: I think we got right around 30 right now. And then we have, we actually already have some affiliates as well. So, I’ve got an affiliate in Edmond that has about, I think 15 people in it. We just started one in Muskogee. Then, we’ve got an affiliate that’s up and running in McAlester.
Brett McKay: And what’s the breakdown? Is it mostly men? Age? What does that look like?
Aaron Sloan: It’s mostly men. I think in our program, I think I’ve probably got maybe eight females out of the 30 participants that’s in there. And then anything under 60 years old we consider early onset. And so, there’s probably maybe three or four of those individuals that are early onset.
Brett McKay: And just to clarify, you’re not putting headsets on these guys, gear on and like they’re pounding each other.
Aaron Sloan: No.
Brett McKay: It’s just like, it’s a fitness boxing?
Aaron Sloan: Yeah, it’s just fitness boxing. Yeah, yes.
Brett McKay: And I think it’s interesting, because boxing and Parkinson’s, a lot- People think of Parkinson’s, they think of Muhammad Ali.
Aaron Sloan: Sure.
Brett McKay: And they attribute, some people attribute his boxing career, or his Parkinson’s to his boxing career. Is there any connection there?
Aaron Sloan: Yeah, of course. And you know, I get that question, because you know, you get these questions, even with just the boxing in general, “How do you as a nurse justify working these guys corners and knowing that getting head trauma is not good, and you’re participating, you’re training them to do this.”
The same thing comes up with the Parkinson’s patients, to where I’ve embraced a sport that can be a, create Parkinson’s Disease, and then we’re using the same sport to help it.
So, when you see like Ali and Freddie Roach, there’s no doubt that boxing brought that on. But what we look at, what we think in a medical world, is that genetics loaded the gun and Parkinson’s pulled the trigger, you know. So, they may have been already predisposed for it and rough sport and head trauma brought it on.
But, you know, I have a little chip on my shoulder about when I answer these kind of questions, especially just with my athletes, because there’s so many sports out here that people let their kids do and they don’t want to let them box. Amateur boxing is a fairly safe sport. We really regulate it close to make sure nobody’s mismatched or outclassed and things of that nature. But, you know, to me the sport’s going to go on. It’s been going on forever. It’s going to happen, no matter what. And, I find it in my job to make sure I’m as educated as I can about keeping my athletes safe. I’ve got the background to do it. I’m a good coach. I want to keep my coaching standards up. So, these guys are going to do it anyway. It’s my job to make sure they do it as safely as possible, whether I condone it or not.
And I tell my boxers all the time, “If you want to, any time you want to come and fill out a FAFSA and got to college, let’s go do that instead. But, if you’re going to do the sport, we’re going to do it right. We’re going to do it as safe as we can, and we’re going to try to make sure you have a long career with the sport that you’re choosing to do.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, when you said genetics loaded, you know, cocked the gun and the sport triggered- I mean, it reminds me of, you hear about those people who keel over during a marathon.
Aaron Sloan: Sure.
Brett McKay: Which you think like, “Well, it’s a marathon. Their heart should be healthy.” But, you know, they had some sort of genetic malfunct- you know, something that’s wrong and the stress just caused them to die. It was going to happens anyways. The race probably just sped it up.
Aaron Sloan: Yeah, definitely, it definitely can speed it up. People get focused on things like that because it’s in the public eye, but I mean, people will come and ask me that question and they took a bigger chance of driving their car to come and ask me that question than what my boxers are taking in the ring. We don’t ban cars because people die in them every day.
Brett McKay Right.
Aaron Sloan: It’s, you have some good and some bad that come along with it. To me, the good of boxing highly, highly outweighs the negative that comes along with it. It helps so many kids in troubled situations. It helps people with their confidence. And I get people here, even here, I mean I train a high, lot of executives and a lot of business owners and things like that. They’re never going to fight, but they train just as hard and they come to me and tell me, “This helped me with my confidence and my negotiating skills. This helps me with my business. This helps me just get my stress out and take my mind off the day.”
So, it’s the same thing with the Parkinson’s boxers. I mean, we’re going to fix a lot, many more people. I’ve had people actually tell me, “I’m almost glad I got Parkinson’s, because I was in such bad shape before. This is the healthiest I’ve ever been, because I actually got serious enough to start training.”
And Bobby, the guy that came to me, he was on a cane and he doesn’t use his cane anymore. He had a tremor in his hand, that’s not noticed anymore, which that may have more to do with the medication than it does with me, but he’s lost 40 pounds since he’s been here. I mean, he’s a machine now. He’s training like three classes a day. He was having to sit down in between every round when he can. He’s like, “You know, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. I’m going to outrun this thing. I’m going to beat this thing.” And he’s like, “I may have died of a heart attack if I wouldn’t have started boxing, you know?”
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk abut some of the stories of people who’ve come through this program and it’s helped them.
So, you mentioned Bobby came in with a cane, started doing it and you said, the medication’s also involved there. But I mean, what are some of the other stories of individuals that have come in, who have never boxed before, never thought they’d be a boxer, but somehow their doctor said, “Hey, you should go to this place on Sixth Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and start boxing.” How did their lives change after that?
Aaron Sloan: You know, the first thing you see with people is, everybody’s a little nervous to come to a boxing gym, especially, they’re scared to go to any gym. It’s extra scary to go to a boxing gym. So, I can’t imagine the amount of bravery it takes for these people to come when they have Parkinson’s Disease, and you walk into a gym like mine and say they want to box. So, the moment they make that first day, you can see it in their facial expressions. You can see it in their confidence that, they feel like they’re already accomplished something once they’re here.
So, that’s the first thing we notice. But, the biggest thing, interestingly enough, is it’s the same with exercise patients, we try to get people hooked on boxing. I try to get people to fall in love with boxing. So, if I can seel you on boxing and you start learning about boxing and you fall in love with the sport and you start understanding more of the sport, the getting in shape and all the other things that come along with it are just side effects of the things that you’re going to do as a lifestyle. So, my whole belief system’s based around changing somebody’s lifestyle, not about worried about your weight or worried about the things that you have.
So, with the Parkinson’s people, I don’t treat them like they’re any much different than anybody else. We have exercise modifications we have to make, of course, that’s specific for them. But, I want them to learn how to box. I sell them on the boxing and they feel a part of the community and they’ve got a good group here. So, the biggest thing that we see right away is just the psychosocial benefit. I mean, it’s life-changing and it’s fast. I mean, it’s fast how much difference it makes in people’s lives.
Brett McKay: So, are they training with other Parkinson’s patients?
Aaron Sloan: Other Parkinson’s patients, but like down here at the gym now, when the classes are here, it’s a mixed group. So, there’s other boxers in here and fighters and things like that. Like we discussed a little bit before the show, I had an individual gym set up for just those guys fr the last three years, and we moved it, because we’re moving it all in house. But, so we’ll all be in the same gym. There’ll be other fighters around, other boxers around for the duration of this. And that’s how most gyms will be that we set up across the country. They’ll be set up inside actual boxing gyms and facilities. And that’s what our hope is. Not all of them will be that way, but we want them inside of a actual boxing gym and a facility.
So, it’s a little more intimidating at first, but I think once they get in there, it’s a pretty cool thing for them.
Brett McKay: How’s it affected your boxers without Parkinson’s, working with these guys who have Parkinson’s?
Aaron Sloan: It’s actually pretty neat to watch, because it’s a requirement, actually, of my boxers that are on my team and the people that work for me. Most of the guys that work for me and help me at the gym are my current fighters, and they’re young guys, 20, 21 years old, a lot of them. Some of them 16, 15. But, I have them go down and hold mitts for the Parkinson’s patients and help run the classes and things like that. It’s a really cool dynamic, because it’s, I think with any young person, the same as it did with me when they come in, it gives you some true appreciation of what you’re able to do and what you’re real fight is every day.
It’s kind of humbling experience, too, because we take so much for granted with our lives and with physical fitness in general. These guys are training because they want to be the Floyd Mayweather or the guy like that that’s famous and on TV and this world champion boxer, and they come in and see these guys that have none of that aspiration. They’re 80 years old and they’re training as hard as what these guys are training, literally. They train hard. They’re training as hard as you’re training, with no aspirations, though. They’re training to live. They’re training to get better. They’re training, if they’re not here, they’re going to die. It’s not about glory or putting the cool Facebook picture up of being a fighter. This is life or death for them.
So, it changes the perspective a little bit with these guys, at least the ones that I’ve had. I mean, maybe there’s some people it wouldn’t, but most of those people that don’t get that, I probably wouldn’t be working with anyway.
Brett McKay: Right. Walk us through a workout for your Parkinson’s patients. What does that look like?
Aaron Sloan: It’s an hour-long workout, same as our other fitness classes. They’ll come in and we have warmup exercises that we do. They’re pretty standardized warmup for their symptoms. So, we’ll come in and, just some big arm swings, neck swings, loosen their neck up. Like I said, there’s a lot of rigidity, so we’re trying to loosen them up at their hips, loosen up their legs. We have exercises that are challenging their balance. So, we’ll have different exercises that we do, that we rock them up on their toes, tracing their hands with their eyes as they pull them above their head. They kind of challenge their balance and things like that.
So, we warm them up for about ten or fifteen minutes with those kind of specific exercises for their symptoms. And then the rest of the program for the bulk of it’s just like we’re doing our boxers. So, they’re doing the heavy bag, speed bag, double end bag, work when we have our boxers come down and do that with them. And everybody likes the mitts the best. I mean, people love hitting the mitts. That’s really what they get excited about.
But, we do three three-minute rounds on the speed bag, three three-minute rounds on the double end bag, three three-minutes rounds on the heavy bag. You know, hands up, chin down, elbows in, making them turn their feet and hips. Then in between their rounds, we keep them working, too. When I first started the program, we couldn’t. Most of our guys weren’t in that shape. But, when they come now, they’re usually in pretty good shape, so even in between the rounds, we have an exercise, like an active rest exercise that they’re doing that’s usually balance related. So, they’re doing forward steps or backward steps or something with their arms above their head or in between the rounds. And then, at the end, it’s a cool-down stretching. So, we’ll have them line up on the wall and do mostly static stretches at the end before they leave.
Brett McKay: All right, so I got tired just listening to that.
Aaron Sloan: Yeah, it’s a workout.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, you mentioned, we were talking earlier about some of the research you’re about to do on how boxing can help Parkinson’s patients. One of those aspects you’re looking at is how it affects the families, the caregivers of these patients. I know you haven’t done any studies on this, but sort of just working with your clients you have now, what’s the change you’ve seen there? How has it changed their families’ life, now that they’re boxing?
Aaron Sloan: One of the biggest things that hits them the earliest is they get to, a lot of them will drive their spouses here, bring their spouses and drop them off, or they’ll wait for them. So, you’ll see, you know, three or four of the spouses, five of them, and they’re waiting. And so, they get to have that discussion time. It becomes like a therapy group for them, because they can, “Are you having trouble with this?” or “What’s your experience with this medication?” or “They’re considering the deep brain stimulation. How was the effects that that’s had for you?”
So, they’re getting to share this information and getting to talk and have that outlet amongst themselves, as well, while they’re waiting. It really becomes a really good group of support, a support group for those people as well. A lot of it’s just the activities at home and outside the house. One of the biggest changes that I’ve seen in anybody, I had a guy in the program named Bill, and he was on a walker and he waited super late into his disease to come in.
That’s another key thing, too. When you get diagnosed, you have to get started. I mean, the people that’s waited are the ones that I have the least amount of effect with. When I’ve started them early, I don’t hardly see any changes. Bobby’s rolled back some changes, but I don’t see any, I haven’t seen any degeneration in him. Every group of guys that I got that started early like that, over the last three years, they’re like still the same. If you can keep it still the same with Parkinson’s, then you’re winning the battle.
But Bill had come in and he was on a walker and I had to have one of my boxers come down every day and hold him up while he hit the speed bag. If you let him go, he’d just fall forward and fall over. And I actually, I did do 12 sessions of personals with him and kind of get him caught up with the class. And then, we got him where he could stand up on his own and he wasn’t falling forward anymore, and we got him going through the exercises. Within a year into the program, he’s walking in like fist bumping everybody, he doesn’t have a walker, he doesn’t have a cane. So, his wife was so happy about it, because they had grandkids that played baseball, and he couldn’t go to their baseball games. Well, he’s going to their baseball games now. He’s getting out of the house now.
I actually had one of the local doctors that was taking care of him call me, and I didn’t know who his doctor was, he was just his primary care physician. So, I got a call from him, he’s like, “You’re taking care of Bill, that was one of my patients.” I’m like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “Well, you know, I just wanted to call you and personally tell you that I couldn’t believe it. He walked into my office yesterday,” and he said, “to be honest with you, I told them to consider nursing home care a year ago.” He said, “I couldn’t believe it.” So, he’s like, “Whatever you’re doing’s made a believer out of me, so anything that we can do for you, let me know.”
So, that was really, that made me feel really good that they’re recognizing it like that in the medical community. So, we’ve got a group of doctors, five or six doctors here, that all refer people over to us now. That’s really helped a lot in getting the physicians’ take that, “Hey, this is really a program that’s successful.”
And so, Bill is one of the biggest life-changing stories that I’ve seen since I’ve been in it. It was one of the biggest life-changing stories for his spouse, because it affected their life so much as far just getting him out of the house. I mean, he didn’t want to do anything. He wouldn’t do anything. He was one of those guys, like I said, that was scared. He was a big guy and he was scared if he fell down somewhere, he wasn’t going to be able to get back up.
That’s another thing, too. We get them down on the ground, all the way on their back, and we make them learn how to get up, because we want to give them the confidence that there’s a technique that you can use to get up off the floor. We want everybody to be able to get up on their own. If, once you find out you can get up on your own, then you’re not so scared to leave the house anymore. If you think you’re going to fall in the grocery store and you can’t get up, you’re not going to go.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Aaron Sloan: If they at least have the confidence to know that they can get up if they do fall, they’ll do a lot more in their life.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that cascading effect. You’re not just working on helping the patient with their life, but you can see it cascade to other aspects of their life. It affects their wife. Now, their grandkids has a relationship with their grandfather they probably wouldn’t have had, because grandpa never left the house.
Aaron Sloan: Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t just debilitate the patient. I mean, it wreaks havoc on the whole family. I mean, especially some of the people that I see in the program that are early onset. It’s, of course it’s bad at any age, but when you get it at such a young age and you know you’ve got to suffer through that and your kids are younger and you’ve got these life plans, where you haven’t even retired from work yet. I mean, now you got to lose your job and then you get these guys that come in, it’s like, “I worked in aviation all my life and I had to give up my job. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
One of the local doctors here that helped me kind of pioneer this program when I first got started and seeing what I was doing and is a big part of our research, Dr. Eric Sherburn, they thought he had actually had Parkinson’s Disease. It turned out to be central tremor. But either way about it, he was a neurosurgeon and had to give that career up.
So, when I first got the program started, he was here in house and he came and said, “I see what you’re doing with this. Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” And I said, “Well, I’d heard that you had Parkinson’s Disease,” because at that time he still didn’t know, I said, but I didn’t know if he was approachable with it yet. He’s like, “Well, I really wasn’t, but I see what’s going on, so I need to get over there and get involved.” And he started getting involved with our program and he’s really the one that pushed us to get this research study going.
Brett McKay: So besides Parkinson’s, are there any other movement disorders that you’ve found that boxing helps with?
Aaron Sloan: I’ve got, one of the guys in the program doesn’t actually have Parkinson’s. He’s been suffering a lot of balance-related issues, and they couldn’t figure out exactly why. So, he’s been coming and training with them. It’s really helped him a lot.
Then, I’ve got a guy that I work with one-on-one that has Wernicke Syndrome, which is a neurological, it’s more almost resembles a stroke, but it’s from a Vitamin B1 deficiency. So, he had had an injury when he was younger that came back to affect him later on. He ended up in the hospital and on a feeding tube and based on not getting fed enough food on a feeding tube, then he got that deficiency, which affected the brain. So, he has a lot of balance issues, and he’s really made a lot of improvements when he first came in. I don’t think his improvements, if I was just guessing, I mean I don’t know, I don’t think a lot of his improvements are probably neurological, but I think he’d just, by training and working out, I think he’s strengthened himself to a point that he’s able to compensate for a lot of the balance issues that he had.
So, we definitely think it’s going to work, and we’ve been working on a cognitive boxing program that’s based on numbers and letters and signs and stuff that I think’s going to benefit some of the other diseases even more specifically. But I went over once and worked with OSU with their annual stroke patient thing. So, we worked with about 40 of their stroke patients and I really think it’s going to have some benefits in that area as well. We have plans to roll the Ready to Fight name out in different programs. We just started a youth boxing program that we’re piloting with Tulsa Public Schools under the Ready to Fight logo. Then, we’re going to do, the next one probably, that’s going to be a post-cardiac rehab. I’m a cardiac nurse by trade, and Don, that I hired after he retired from the hospital, he actually oriented me in as a nurse. And then he retired and I hired him to come and work for me at the Parkinson’s gym. His background’s in cardiac.
So, we think we could really use this boxing to keep people interested. It’s using boxing as an interesting modality to exercise. I mean, that’s all it is. And we think we can use that for almost any kind of disease process, we can get people in the gym and keep them interested.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s better than just walking on a treadmill.
Aaron Sloan: Exactly. I mean, it’s just so hard to motivate yourself to go do that, but if you find something that’s fun and that you like, you’re going to go do it. So, most of the people we have here are looking forward to coming to the gym. I’m not trying to build a business or a gym off of having a bunch of members that I bill every month and they don’t ever come to the gym. I want my clients in the gym, you know? I want them here working out, and we’re just not into, like I said, we’re into lifestyle building. We’re not into just trying to get as many gym dues as we can.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned, sort of talking about the future of this program, so you’re going to start having cardiac patients. How do you see this expanding with the Parkinson’s patients? Are you expanding it across the state? Are you hoping to take this national? What are the goals there?
Aaron Sloan: We want to take it national. There’s another national program out there that’s a really good program at its core, the way it’s been distributed out and the way it’s been done hasn’t been followed that close from my regard as a nurse to research and stuff off of. So, my concern was that, “Hey, I think boxing’s the superior program over all exercise for Parkinson’s, but if we keep having people out there that are not teaching it to the core of boxing strictly enough, then I think they’re going to lose that.” It’ll probably still be beneficial, because they’re exercising, but I think if somebody were to do research on that, they’re going to determine that it’s just equal to cycling. And I just-
Brett McKay: Right, so you’re worried that the other, like some boxing programs that come out that treat Parkinson’s, they’re watering down boxing, which will be a detriment to the patient?
Aaron Sloan: I think so.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Aaron Sloan: You know, these people only have so much time that they can do. They have all these other doctors appointments, they have handwriting classes, speech therapy classes. So, I want to make sure that my patients are spending, if they’re spending an hour a day exercising, I want them to make sure that they’re doing the best exercise available.
And if it came out to be something else, then so be it. But right now, I believe it’s boxing and I think most the people in the healthcare field that I’m working with believe that it’s boxing. So, I want to create a program that’s for sure going to make sure that we can do research, not just in my gym, but across the country and on a large spectrum and prove that boxing really is the best way you can spend your hour of time exercising.
So, that was really my goals when I roll it out nationally. Now, I’m behind the ball, you know, so there’s already a national program out there. So, we come up with ours and you get blended in to, “Well, that’s the difference? Boxing is boxing and Parkinson’s Disease is Parkinson’s Disease.” And that’s as far as they look.
Actually, we just this week, finally, and I had our contract signed with USA Boxing, who were an affiliate gym of, all of our amateur boxing program runs under USA Boxing, it’s governed by the USOC, the United States Olympic Committee. So, it’s already a national program, of course, one of the largest boxing, it is the largest boxing program in the country. So, we just partnered with those guys to be their official boxing program for USA Boxing. I go to Columbus, Ohio this week to talk to the coaches there, and then hopefully in December we’re going to start training coaches.
So, teaming up with those is going to instantly take us to be a national program, and I’m looking to hopefully roll out two to three hundred affiliates over the next three years.
Brett McKay: That’s awe- So, what can people do who are listening now? I’m sure there’s someone listening, there’s got to be, we’ve got a lot of listeners, who, they might have Parkinson’s, or they have someone who has Parkinson’s, but they’re not in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Aaron Sloan: Sure.
Brett McKay: They’re not in Edmond, Oklahoma. What’s their best bet? I mean, can they just walk into a gym and say, “Hey, I got Parkinson’s and I just want a regular workout?” What-
Aaron Sloan: Yeah, I would still go. I mean, if I was those guys, I would still go get in the boxing program that’s close to them. It wouldn’t matter, I mean, I wouldn’t send you to the competitor. I mean, go to the boxing gym and get working. They could look up, just, they could probably get with their local Parkinson’s foundation. Every state’s going to have a Parkinson’s group. And so, I would reach out to those guys and find out where those programs are and where they could get started, because they don’t need to wait. They need to get started right- Don’t be waiting on me. They need to get started right away.
And then, as this program grows and those foundations will be reaching out to and letting them know that we have this specific program in their area now. So, that education will be coming as we expand, but that’s going to be slow over the next couple of years. To me, if you find out you have Parkinson’s Disease, I would get in a boxing program as soon as possible.
Brett McKay: Let’s say people who are listening to this, maybe they’re boxers and they want to help with this. Anything they can do?
Aaron Sloan: Sure. Yeah, they could reach out to me and contact us, of course, or contact USA Boxing and it’s going to get them to the same result now. So, if they want to become an affiliate of our program or teach our program, then we would love to look at them and have them. Now, I can say we’re not, we’re probably going to be a little more selective than some of the other certifications out there. Our program’s going to be hard, it’s going to have a continuing education component of it that nobody else has. So, we’re going to be picky about who we let run these programs, because we want them held to a high standard that’s based off of the research that we’re doing with our local program here.
So, we’ve turned in a specific set of exercises with specific movements that need to be done for specific times, and that’s what we’re researching and that’s the model that I want to push forward with all of these affiliates. But, anybody that knows, even if you don’t know anything about boxing, that doesn’t mean that we can’t coach you and train you and teach you to run our program to a high enough standard for our Parkinson’s Disease. They’re not training people for competition boxing. We need people that’s going to, if you’re a fitness trainer or a personal trainer or somebody that has exercise background that has some other knowledge, we can definitely make that work for sure.
Brett McKay: So, where can people go to learn more about Ready to Fight?
Aaron Sloan: You can go to ReadyToFightBoxing.com and look at our website, find out more about it. You can look on the EngineRoomBoxing.com as well and find other information on there.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Aaron Sloan, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Aaron Sloan: No, thank you for having us. Appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest is Aaron Sloan. He is the founder of Ready to Fight Boxing. It’s a fitness program designed specifically for Parkinson’s patients. You can find more information about it at ReadyToFightBoxing.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.IS/ReadyToFight, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at ArtOfManliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousand of articles written over the years. We got a whole series on boxing. So if that interests you, go check that out as well. And if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to Stitcher Premium, sign up, use code ‘manliness’ for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast.
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