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Researchers studying how karate might benefit people with Parkinson's

Posted at 2:14 PM, Feb 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-11 17:28:57-05

CHICAGO, Ill. -- Karate is well-known for teaching discipline, but its focus on core strength, balance and confidence-building could be effective for something else – helping people living with brain disorders such as Parkinson’s.

Twice a week, inside a karate dojo in Chicago, students learn the fundamental movements of Kihon technique.

“We did something called KoGo Kumite which is partner work, working on rhythm, working on distancing, working on timing and working on technique.”

But for Fonseca Martial Arts head instructor Brian Ramrup this is a class like none other he’s taught before.

“These guys all have Parkinson's,” said Ramrup.

More than 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease. The progressive neurological disorder affects balance and movement.

Tremors and stiffness are common symptoms, but the disease can also lead to depression and anxiety.

For Sonia Vargas, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005, it started with tingling in her legs.

“It felt like I was carrying some piece of some heavy equipment on my legs,” said Vargas.

A year ago, on the recommendation of her neurologist, Vargas joined the Chicago-area martial arts academy.

“These guys are learning how to go to the ground safely, how to break falls,” said Ramrup.

It’s a skill that can help avoid injuries for patients who begin to lose balance and fall frequently. It’s part of a program studying the potential for karate to slow the progression of the disorder.

“When I went to the first class, the next day, I felt a difference. It was so remarkable,” said Vargas.

Dr. Jori Fleisher is the principal investigator of the study and a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center. She says initial results are promising.

“We found clinically significant changes in quality of life which is huge,” said Fleisher. “It's a great exercise covering a lot of the areas: balance, core strength, big large amplitude movements when people are kind of tiny or smaller, stiffer. They're sort of fighting back actively against that.”

Camaraderie is also a key component. The group now competes together, cheering for one another on good days and bad.

“The exercises help tremendously the competitions. I mean really gets you going. I mean my first competition I got I got the orange belt,” said Vargas.

The year-long randomized program concludes next month, and Dr. Fleisher remains cautiously optimistic about the outcome.

“I don't think karate will be the end all be all. It's not the answer, but could it be an answer? I think so.”