SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. - At 85, Lea Nixon is embracing her inner Ali.
"It's something different," the Buckhead grandmother says. "And I thought I would really do it."
Three months ago, Nixon heard about PD Gladiators, a non-contact boxing program for people like her, with Parkinson's Disease.
So, she told her husband, John, she wanted to learn how to fight.
"He said, 'You're crazy!'" she laughs.
But Nixon's boxing instructor, former pro boxer Paul Delgado, says boxing, with its emphasis on hand-eye coordination, may be the perfect exercise for Parkinson's.
He trains the participants just like the professional and amateur boxers who come into his gym.
The only difference here is the Parkinson's boxers are punching bags, not each other.
"It's not just an overall body workout," Delgado says. "It's a mind workout, more than anything. It's very mental."
About a million Americans have Parkinson's Disease. It's a progressive movement disorder in which the brain slowly stops producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends signals to areas of the brain that control movement.
Patients may experience tremor, slowed movements, rigid muscles and difficulty with balance and speech.
Lea Nixon says in the last couple of years, her symptoms have become more pronounced.
So, every Monday, Nixon takes Uber to the Delgado Boxing Gym in Sandy Springs for her PD Gladiators class.
Delgado starts each session with a warm up, focusing on building strength, balance and flexibility, which can all be challenges for someone with Parkinson's.
The disease progressively destroys neurotransmitters in the brain that help regulate movement, coordination and emotional responses.
"We push them hard. They're fighters," says Delgado. "They're no different than any other fighters that we have here."
So, why boxing for Parkinson's?
Emory School of Medicine Assistant Professor of Neurology Dr. Joe Nocera says research shows intense physical exercise like boxing may slow the progression of Parkinson's and protect the brain.
He says boxing requires very deliberate, fluid movements and steps.
"So, this exercise really focuses them on being intentional with their movements," Dr. Nocera says. "So they have to really think about their movement."
Lea Nixon, diagnosed with 5 years ago, says her biggest challenge is walking, because
legs will suddenly freeze up on her, just about every time she walks.
"It's very difficult," Nixon says. "It affects my whole life."
Here, she's practices thinking through her movements, surrounded by boxers doing the same thing.
"It's very good to have other people," she says. "Because when you're alone everybody looks at you. That's really difficult, that's when I really freeze."
Delgado drills the class, pushing them to fight hard. And Dr. Nocera says it's making a difference.
"Not only in how they respond to the therapy itself, in their movement and balance, but also the enjoyment they get out of it," he says. "The people absolutely love this. Which is the most critical thing. Another element of Parkinson's is a very high rate of depression. You won't see that in here."
And if you're thinking you couldn't do this?
"Yes, you can. It's easy," she says. "Paul shows you how."
In just two years, PD Gladiators has grown from a handful of classes to about 50 across metro Atlanta with 325 active participants.
The program is underwritten by the National Parkinson Foundation and class members are evaluated and matched with a class that fits their needs.
Delgado has been teaching boxing to the PD Gladiators for 6 years now.
"It's inspiring. It's inspiring for me, as a former fighter," says Delgado. "It's inspiring for everyone else in this community, to be able to see these individuals fight, and fight a fight better than anyone else."
After a long drill of hitting the bags, Delgado calls time.
Nixon and her fellow class members are exhausted.
"Everybody hands up, hands up," yells Delgado. "Undisputed, undisputed champions! Good job everybody!"
For more information on the PD Gladiators program, visit http://pdgladiators.org.