Not many people can credibly claim that they helped change the world by watching television. Boise State psychology professor Pennie Seibert may be an exception.

It was while watching CBS Sunday Morning show, in which an Indianapolis gym was featured for its work teaching Parkinson’s sufferers boxing moves, that Seibert stumbled upon her latest research project: studying the physical effects non-contact boxing has on symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. As the name suggests, non-contact boxing does not involve hitting or being hit by another person. Instead, individuals practice a mixture of shadow boxing techniques as well as use special padded gloves and punch bags to hone their balance and movement.

Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder that affects the central nervous system and includes physical symptoms such as hand tremors, shaking and difficulty walking. However, non-contact boxing may help alleviate some of these symptoms and improve quality of life.

Seibert flew to Indianapolis to see the program for herself.

“I interviewed trainers, participants, I interviewed their caregivers and I was impressed by their comments – they talked about getting their lives back,” said Seibert, who has worked on Parkinson’s-related research for more than a decade in her role as Chief Research Scientist for the Research Institute at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.

“The problem is, there hasn’t been any comprehensive research done trying to show efficacy of the program. It’s primarily anecdotal information. I wanted to know, can we objectively show efficacy of this program?”

Seibert was eager to find out. She teamed up with Meridian-based gym Element Athletix and Saint Alphonsus to launch a year-long pilot study involving Parkinson’s patients, who train at the gym twice a week. The study started with six volunteers last summer; it has now grown to 12 participants. As far as the boxers are concerned, the program is highly successful.

“I have more energy and my range of motion is better, those are the two key things,” said Bob Rutz, who has been with the study since the beginning. “I’m stronger and have better balance. It’s definitely helped alleviate symptoms.”

Seibert and several of her students monitor their training sessions and regularly interview the patients, their primary caregivers and trainers. As part of the program, Seibert and her staff were given access to the patients’ medical files and have developed scientific measures to assess their physical progress.

Stage one of the pilot study will conclude this summer but Seibert said it’s far from over. She would like to expand the study to include neurologists, physical therapists and occupational therapists who could administer regular medical assessments of the boxers’ progress, and eventually use MRI to track brain changes associated with the program.

“What we think might be happening is that the movements are retraining the brain on how to respond to the Parkinson’s,” Seibert said. “But what’s most exciting – and vital – at this stage is that the program keeps growing and our participants say it is changing their lives for the better.”