January 22, 2020
It’s noon on a Tuesday as a group of determined individuals arrive at Rush Copley Healthplex for their weekly boxing class. They don’t look like “typical” boxers. The class includes men and women and many are older with graying hair. Some walk hesitantly. Others use walkers. But they all have one thing in common and one goal – they have Parkinson’s disease and, for the next hour, will train like boxers to try to stop or slow the progression of their disease.
The class is Rock Steady Boxing, a progressive fitness program held weekly at the Healthplex for those affected by Parkinson’s. It helps them fight back, feel comfortable and gain confidence in their abilities.
Participant William Grisch says he attends the boxing class “for the same reason we all do it – to try to stop or slow down Parkinson’s.” Has it helped? “It has certainly slowed it down,” he says. “The exercises make sense. Some are more difficult and make us push our bodies as hard as we can go.”
Empowering Patients to Fight Back
Rush Copley is an affiliate of Rock Steady Boxing, a nonprofit organization that was created to help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their quality of life through a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum. Founded in 2006 by Scott C. Newman, a former Indiana prosecutor who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at age 40, its mission is to empower people with Parkinson’s to fight back. When Newman was diagnosed, his friend Vince Perez used his experience as a Golden Gloves boxer to design the program which consists of exercises largely adapted from boxing drills. “Boxers condition for optimal agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength to defend against and overcome opponents. At Rock Steady Boxing, Parkinson’s is the opponent,” the Rock Steady website reads. The program has been proven to have merit. Recent studies at Cleveland Clinic suggest that certain kinds of exercise may be neuro-protective and actually slow disease progression. While the exercises vary, all are rigorous and intended to extend the perceived capabilities of the participants.
More than one million people in the United States are living with Parkinson’s, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, and 60,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year. Rock Steady has over 850 boxing programs around the world training 43,500 Parkinson’s boxers. For Rush Copley to become an affiliate of Rock Steady, Diana Pacheco, an ACSM certified personal trainer and fitness instructor at the Healthplex, attended a two-day extensive training where she learned theory and how to put it into practice. She then shared what she learned with other Rush Copley trainers. In the boxing program and in all of the Movement Disorders exercise classes, she works closely with trainers Karl Bersamin and Carrie Holleran.
“The reason the Rock Steady program is so good is that it is the most intense type of workout you can have,” Pacheco explains. “It works on coordination, strength, balance, and mind and body. It uses the whole body.” The class uses spin bike, a running track, mutual pad work, tires, ropes, medicine balls, weights, bands, and pattern work with agility ladders. The exercises are modified for each participant’s abilities. For example, a participant who is unable to get on a spin bike would use a recumbent bike.
"We’re always evolving in what we present,” Pacheco says. “We work on balance or core and hit all areas. We take participants out of their comfort zones and challenge them to go beyond what they are doing.” And she adds, “We are doing a great job. We see results. We can see the differences.”
“This has been a game changer for me,” says Parkinson’s patient Craig Smit. “I’ve been a carpenter for 42 years. I left my profession nine months ago and thought I’d never swing a hammer again. Now I’m back. This program has made a huge difference.”
The class helps participants physically and mentally. “Exercise is medicine for them,” Pacheco says. “Their mental dexterity improves, too.”
Part of a Comprehensive Program
“What’s unique about our program is that it is comprehensive,” Pacheco says. The Rock Steady class is part of Rush Copley’s Movement Disorders Program, which provides management of Parkinson’s and other movement disorders by helping patients maximize their movement, coordination and quality of life. The program includes support groups and exercise classes, including Delay the Disease classes to counteract the movement challenges experienced by people with Parkinson’s; aquatic exercise; mind and body training, which is similar to yoga and helps increase flexibility, improve posture, loosen tight painful muscles, build confidence and enhance quality of life; and art and music therapy. Music therapy goals are to increase speech intelligibility, pitch and loudness, improve respiratory strength and provide social support and relaxation while art therapy uses the creative process to help participants increase their awareness of self and others, cope with symptoms and stress, and enhance cognitive abilities. All of these programs are free to patients with movement disorders, thanks to support from Rush Copley Foundation and a grant from the Parkinson’s Foundation.
“We offer a complete week of exercise,” Pacheco says. “We are certified in Delay the Disease programs. We do Mind and Body exercises as well as aquatic exercises in the pool. We do aerobics and tai chi – they don’t like tai chi, but it’s good for them. It gives them range of motion.”
Before joining any of the classes, participants need medical clearance and are assessed to see if they qualify for the program and at what level.
Challenging but Fun
“Participants are happy with the program,” Bersamin says. “Rock Steady is a really fun class for them. Their bodies are being challenged physically and, at the same time, they are learning that their minds can do much more than they realize. They can carry so much more than they expect. “
It’s also social for them, Bersamin adds. “They enjoy the camaraderie and support one another. They pick each other up without realizing it.”
Craig Smit agrees the camaraderie is an important part of the class experience. “I look forward to coming,” he says. “It’s all good.”
Ron Meyer has been participating in boxing since the class began at Rush Copley. “A lot of people don’t know I have Parkinson’s, so I figure if I can pull that off, the class is helping,” he says. “The exercises make sense and they help me work out frustrations.”
“I get my mobility back after the class,” Victor Von Ehr says, although he adds that it’s temporary and that he needs to exercise every day. He attends other classes in the program as well and says boxing is the most intense.
Deb Hopkins likes the class because it encourages her to try new things. “It helps me with my balance. It helps with walking and coordination. It’s a great program,” she praises. Of the trainers, she says, “They make you work. We’re always challenged, and they are very patient.”
Sometimes participants get discouraged. “Then we step in,” Pacheco says. Bersamin explains, “I tell them, ‘Let it out in boxing.’” Boxing is a great stress reliever from their frustration levels, he says. “They lose themselves in it. They get an emotional release into the pads. They let frustration out and gain confidence. They have shared gratification with what they’re accomplishing together.”
The trainers are proud of their students’ accomplishments. “I tell them, ‘You put in the work, you will see results,’” Pacheco says. And they do. As examples, she cites one participant who, although fighting Parkinson’s, is healthier than ever in terms of weight, blood pressure and sugar levels. Another participant was in a wheelchair but is now able to use a walker again. Of that participant, Pacheco says, “She is the most determined personality.”
“I feel so lucky to be part of this program,” Pacheco says. “We provide so much more than boxing classes. We are transforming people’s lives and giving them hope."