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Rock Steady Boxing Improves Quality of Life for Parkinson’s Patients

Photographer: Amy Payne

Rock Steady Boxing is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit gym with a mission of empowering people with Parkinson’s disease to fight back. Originally founded in 2006 by former Marion County (Indiana) Prosecutor Scott C. Newman, who is living with Parkinson’s, he asked his friend Vince Perez, a former Golden Globes boxer, to help him launch the program. Ultimately, they created classes to meet various fitness levels at all stages of Parkinson’s, a degenerative movement disorder that can deteriorate motor skills, balance, speech and sensory function.

According to Juli Krizan, volunteer staff director and certified RSB coach, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates that 1 million people in the United States suffer from Parkinson’s disease, and more than 60,000 people are diagnosed annually. Research has found, however, that forced, intense exercise slows the progression of Parkinson’s so Rock Steady Boxing improves quality of life through a non-contact boxing-based fitness curriculum.

Rock Steady Boxing is much more than just a workout facility, though. It’s also a support group for those who come to box.

“For some people with Parkinson’s, they’ve never been around someone else who has the disease, too,” Krizan says. “To be in a space where everybody gets what they’re going through is really powerful because they realize they’re not alone in this fight.”

As a result, friendships develop. People check on one another if someone doesn’t show up to class.

“For some, this is the only thing they do and the only place they go,” says Krizan, who notes that Parkinson’s presents itself differently in everyone.

Some struggle with speech difficulties while others battle physical issues such as tremors, shuffling gait or balance difficulties. The average age of a Rock Steady Boxing participant is early to mid-60s, though it can vary greatly.

“Currently, our youngest boxer is 42 and our oldest is 88,” Krizan says.

Ability level also varies as some are rather mobile while others require a wheelchair to get around.

The way folks come to join the Rock Steady program is typically by a doctor’s referral. However, others simply walk through the door to learn more. The first step is scheduling an assessment to determine the class that is the best fit.

Each class begins with a “get-to-know-you” question that serves not only as an icebreaker but also as a way to work on voicing since Parkinson’s patients often struggle to get their breath sounds out. Next, they warm up with a bit of beach volleyball or walking in a circle. From there they engage in general fitness activities. Boxing works on alternative movement of the arms and trunk rotation as well as spreading the feet far apart and still maintaining balance while hitting the bag. This is key since Parkinson’s patients start losing alternating movement as the disease progresses.

To work on rhythm, quick movement and reflexes, coaches incorporate heavy bags, speed bags, and reflex bags into the workouts to sharpen different skillsets.

Some people hear the word “boxing” and envision jumping into a ring and taking a swing at their opponent, but that’s not what they do at Rock Steady Boxing.

“It’s totally non-contact,” Krizan says. “We hit bags and do some mitt work — all designed to improve balance, agility, movement and thinking.”

Each class targets upper body, lower body and core strength. And they combine movements. For instance, students may be hitting a heavy bag while their instructor yells out numbers.

“That way they are working on voicing as well as speed and agility,” Krizan says.

The Rock Steady headquarters, located on the northeast side of town, sends out a weekly plan to each of its affiliates. One week they may work on martial arts, another week balance. They even practice techniques for how to fall safely and get back up again.

“Often these folks haven’t been down on the floor in years, and they worry that if they fall down, they won’t be able to get back up,” Krizan says. “These classes give them confidence that they are, in fact, capable, and they prove to themselves that they can get up and down.”

These 90-minute community classes (which are offered in the morning, afternoon and evening) typically consist of anywhere from six to 18 people. Each class includes between one and four volunteers who help ensure the safety of the students. Those who are susceptible to falling start out with a “cornerman” who stays by them during class until they are more stable. As time goes on, students may move between classes based on their changing abilities.

The University of Indianapolis and Purdue University have both been doing some research with Rock Steady Boxing, and they are showing amazing efficacy with the program. Krizan has witnessed, firsthand, transformations in those who participate regularly.

“Some people come in hunched over a walker, but in a matter of weeks, their posture improves, as does their confidence,” Krizan says. “Some are able to completely get rid of their walkers.”

One man, after a few months in the program, bragged to Krizan that he mowed his lawn for the first time in years. He was over the moon about being able to do something that he had given up due to poor balance and endurance. Undoubtedly, this fitness regime is proving to significantly improve the ability of people with Parkinson’s to live independent lives. Many others report feeling more energetic and less fatigued. The social component is paramount.

“The thing I hear most is how much people appreciate being a part of such a caring, loving, supportive group,” Krizan adds.

When Rock Steady Boxing-Brownsburg opened in October 2014, they were the 34th affiliate. In the past five years, however, Rock Steady Boxing has grown to more than 800 affiliates. Angie and Mike Nelson opened this location after Angie’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Krizan, who sits on the board of directors, got involved with the gym four years ago. A physical therapist by trade, Krizan was running a Parkinson’s support group at the Senior Center through Hendricks Regional Health when she met Angie. Once Krizan heard about Rock Steady Boxing opening in Brownsburg, she knew she wanted to get involved.

Because Rock Steady Boxing is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, they do not turn away anyone due to financial hardship. Their biggest limitation is the number of volunteers they have.

“We can always use more hands,” Krizan says.

If you are 18 years or older and are interested in helping out, contact Krizan.

“We could use help not only with cornerman duties but also marketing and fundraising,” Krizan adds.

Rock Steady Boxing holds an annual fundraiser each November. This year’s event, which includes a live and silent auction, raffles, speakers and a wine pull, will take place November 9 from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at Don Schumacher Racing.

“This is our primary way of raising money for program development scholarships,” Krizan says. “If your company is interested in becoming a corporate sponsor, let me know.”

Why Clients Love the Program

“I learned coming to Rock Steady that it is not a killer contact sport but a killer method of exercise to slow the progression of PD.”

– Betty Thomas

“My handwriting had become difficult for a few years. The letters would get smaller as I wrote and I started having a hard time writing letters. After starting Rock Steady Boxing, I noticed I was getting stronger. Now with this strength in my right arm, I am able to write well again.”

– Julie Kingery

“PD comes at you from all sides. It tears at your self-worth by taking your ability to contribute physically, mentally and socially. It leaves a void in your soul, only leaving loneliness and fear of the unknown. Rock Steady empowers our boxers with Parkinson’s disease to provide the physical and emotional resources to fight back. It really comes down to you to bring the discipline, determination and commitment to continue the fight.”

– Gary Paul

Rock Steady Boxing is located at 1531 E. Northfield Drive, Suite 800 in Brownsburg. For more information, call 317-939-0166, email brownsburg@rsbaffiliate.com or visit brownsburg.rsbaffiliate.com.

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