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Rock Steady: Boxing program packs a punches against Parkinson’s disease

WRITTEN BY BOB LABBE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSHUA BERRY
With more than one million Americans living with Parkinson’s disease – more than the combined number diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease – there are studies that indicate “forced” exercise and rapid movements have slowed the disease’s progression. One such exercise is boxing.
Rock Steady Boxing, a program of the Huntsville-Madison County Senior Center, is making a difference in the daily quality of life for many who suffer from all levels of Parkinson’s. The program is based out of Indianapolis but has 625 affiliates across 11 countries with more than 31,000 participants. The local program boasts more than 100 members led by nine certified coaches.
“We have one local physician who has seen changes in their patients after being involved in Rock Steady Boxing,” said Carolyn Rhodes, fitness director of the Huntsville-Madison County Senior Center. “My husband, Jim, is in the program after being diagnosed in 2016 and he, too, has progressed very well.”
Those in the local program range in age from 44-90 and represent all levels of the disease – a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Studies indicate the rapid movement exercise of boxing has resulted in immense improvements in balance, gait and everyday quality of life.
Otis Vaughn of Madison said he first noticed symptoms of Parkinson’s three years ago, when he would weave when walking and had difficulty with simple everyday tasks such as handwriting. The 83-year-old took to Rock Steady Boxing and has seen tremendous improvement in many of his symptoms.
“My back would hurt, and my neck was stiff. The boxing has helped me physically,” said Vaughn. “I credit the program of having my symptoms diminish.”
Vaughn grew up boxing and said he feels at home with the gloves on. He attends the boxing classes three days a week. He hits the heavy bag hard and said he receives a rigorous workout, as the program is physical to the hilt.
Dallas Terrell is the head coach of Rock Steady Boxing. He said the boxing program helps those suffering from the disease to forget they have Parkinson’s – even if it’s just for an hour. “We can modify their lives, though it’s hard to measure, but you see how this is a big deal for those who attend,” Terrell said. “Many of those suffering Parkinson’s stop going out in public, except to see their doctor. Boxing is doing something proactive and allows them to maintain as much independence as possible for as long as possible.”
Madison resident Alicia McDaniel, 58, said she noticed tremors as early as six years ago, but it took four years for several doctors to agree she was suffering the early signs of Parkinson’s disease. She tried water aerobics but with little success. Several of her friends were involved at the Senior Center, so she said she decided to give boxing a try. “It helps me with some of my balance issues and flexibility,” said McDaniel. “When I found out I had Parkinson’s, I didn’t know much about the disease except Muhammad Ali and Michael Jay Fox had it. It’s been a learning experience, and boxing has done wonders for me.”
Rock Steady Boxing is for all levels of Parkinson’s; some of the participants even take part from their wheelchairs. As a group, the exercise is also a great form of focus group, and enormous relationships are developed. “These people accept their condition, and this is very liberating for them to focus on something else other than their disease,” Terrell said.
Boxing works for the participants by moving their bodies through all planes of motion. They do not hit each other; this form of boxing exercise is strictly hitting bags and punches to thin air or the padded hands of the coaches.
The name Rock Steady comes from the originator of the exercise program, who showed his physician he benefited from the sport as he stuck out his arm and exclaimed, “See, I’m rock steady.”
“To partake in Ready Steady Boxing you must have a doctor’s referral, and each patient has to go through an assessment from our certified coaching staff,” Rhodes said. “Dallas has designed the program’s workout format.”
Despite the disease taking its toll on those who suffer from the symptoms that ravage a person’s independence and overall health, all is not lost. Rock Steady Boxing has provided a path for those suffering – a way to step into the ring and take their best shot at fighting the disease.
“Parkinson’s is just another bump in life’s road,” said McDaniel. “I don’t look at this as a life changing; I have to manage it.”
More details are available at the Huntsville-Madison County Senior Center, located on Drake Avenue in Huntsville, or by calling 256-880-7080.

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