Punching out Parkinson's

Punching out Parkinson's

The people working out in this Champaign gym punch speed bags with their boxing gloves. They jump rope, ride stationary bicycles and do exercises while balancing on stability balls.

The workouts look like those you’d see in any gym. The average age of the athletes, though, is a little older, and when they aren’t in the middle of a workout, you might notice an arm shaking or a walk that seems slow.

Rock Steady Boxing is a gym specifically for people with Parkinson’s disease, and the exercises the gym teaches are aimed at decreasing the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s and slowing the progression of those symptoms. Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 by an Indiana lawyer with Parkinson’s who found that boxing training significantly improved his physical functioning. Affiliates have opened in a number of states, and Lora Mock, a physical therapist, opened the Champaign gym in September 2015.

Mock worked with geriatric patients, some of whom had Parkinson’s disease. She became interested in options for treating them other than traditional therapy. After she heard about Rock Steady Boxing, she went through training on using the exercise program to work with Parkinson’s patients.

Blog PhotoThe exercise program at Rock Steady includes activities to improve balance, agility, core strength, cardiovascular fitness and eye-hand coordination. The 90-minute classes Mock leads start with stretching, and then the participants work through a series of stations, spending six minutes on each activity, resting for 45 seconds, then moving on to the next activity.

The exercises include non-contact boxing in which the participants are hitting bags or mitts that Mock wears on her hands; riding a stationary bicycle; balancing on a stability ball while doing situps, squats or twists, or throwing and catching a ball; jumping rope; and even beating a tractor tire with a baseball bat. That last exercise helps both with strength and with large arcing movements of the arms, Mock said.

Norman Hale, 83, of Decatur was skeptical when his doctor recommended he try out the gym.

“I didn’t want to come. I thought it was silly. How do you connect boxing with the disease?” Hale said.

But he came to the gym out of curiosity in November 2015, liked it and hasn’t missed a class since. The camaraderie the class members develop with one another is Hale’s favorite aspect of the class. They help motivate each other, he said.

“You see people improving and think, ‘Hey, I can do that,’” Hale said.

Mock said the high-intensity exercises of the classes help with blood flow to the brain, as well as overall fitness. She described the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease — tremors, falls, slowness of movement, softness of speech, an arm that doesn’t move well or that doesn’t swing when the patient walks, posture becoming stooped.

“(Patients) aren’t able to interact with people as well. They’re afraid of falling, so they start staying home,” Mock said. “The main things I see are tremors and slowness of movement. The exercises are designed to improve those things and make them aware of those things.

Blog Photo“It’s a quality-of-life issue, because (patients) can continue to work longer, travel, farm, play with the  grandkids, be active in their community, and do that for a longer period of time than they might have without this exercise.”

Mock assesses the exercise class participants when they start classes and then again every six months to monitor their symptoms and any progress in physical fitness.

Mike Dyson of Mahomet was diagnosed a little more than a year and a half ago. He’s been coming to the gym for about two months, and even in that short time he’s noticed improvement. After he exercises, he is able to relax his arm and the tremor in his left hand is lessened.

Many of the people working out at the Champaign gym are at a fairly high physical level, like Dyson. But, Mock said, “anybody with any level of Parkinson’s can come to the gym. If someone comes in a wheelchair, that’s my job to adjust and modify the exercises for them. We want people of any level to come.”

Some patients who have few symptoms don’t want to start physical therapy because they are still able to work and function in their daily lives and think they don’t need it yet. Mock believes the sooner they start exercising, the better they are able to slow the progression of symptoms.

Other patients might have a doctor recommend exercise, but they may not know how to proceed.

“They might go to a gym where everyone is younger and healthier. They go into the gym with their tremors and their slow walk, and they feel conspicuous,” Mock said.

Myrna Capati of Decatur said the exercise program has helped her emotionally as much as physically by allowing her to meet others with the same disease.

“When I was first diagnosed, it’s kind of hard to accept,” she said. “But I see people regularly with the same condition. You feel more accepting of the situation.”

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

On the web

— For more information about Rock Steady Boxing, go to rocksteadyboxing.org.

— For more information on the Champaign gym, go to champaign.rsbaffiliate.com.

 Photos: Top, Gary Stitt of Champaign goes through his workout on Thursday at Rock Steady Boxing gym at 2110 N. Market St., Champaign. Bottom, Ryan Jackson of Mahomet jumps rope at Rock Steady Boxing gym. Photos by Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette 

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