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Boxers fight their own Parkinson’s disease with gloves up

Boxers fight their own Parkinson’s disease with gloves up

Rock Steady Boxing classes in Belleville and Troy use forceful exercises to combat the advance of Parkinson's disease.
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Rock Steady Boxing classes in Belleville and Troy use forceful exercises to combat the advance of Parkinson's disease.

Rodney Jacob, 62, of Belleville, wants to tie his own fishing lures easily again.

That ability has dwindled since the onset of Parkinson’s disease three years ago.

With some sweat and concentrated effort, trainer Stacie Panek said he’ll get back to tying those lures. She leads a Rock Steady Boxing class at Belleville Health and Fitness Center.

“We’re going to get those fingers working,” she told him after a recent Thursday afternoon class.

Rock Steady Boxing started in 2006 in Indianapolis, when Scott Newman realized the intense, high-energy boxing workouts eased his Parkinson’s symptoms. He was 40 when diagnosed.

The explosive power in throwing punches is just the defense that people with Parkinson’s disease need to combat the advance of the disease, say local fitness experts.

“There’s scientific research on this Rock Steady Boxing program; it slows down the progression and lessens their symptoms,” said Micki Classen, director of Belleville Health and Fitness Center. The hospital-associated center recently started offering the hour-long class twice a week. It is the second gym in the metro-east to offer classes that use boxing techniques, including punching bags and jumping.

Trainer Dan McLeod, of Rock Steady Boxing Metro STL, has offered the Rock Steady Boxing program at his Troy gym for about seven weeks. It’s grown to about 15 members. He became certified after learning through a news story of the progress patients make with the program. Now, participants’ families are seeing the same thing.

“The best thing I can say is their spouses have noticed several changes (in the boxers),” he said. “A wife says the husband’s energy levels are back ... you expect that about two to four weeks in.”

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. It often starts with a tremor in one hand. Other symptoms are slow movement, stiffness and loss of balance.

Both metro-east gyms assess folks coming into the class, evaluating physical abilities and the emotional toll the disease is taking.

Panek said her cousin was diagnosed with the disease in his 30s, and she has seen him suffer depression as a result. To her, providing hope is “the most important part” of the program.

Being loud

From the beginning of the class to the end of the hour, Panek has a constant smile while issuing instructions over loud music.

“Jab! Jab! Upper! Upper! Hook! Hook!”

She leads the small class in shouting over the music’s drumbeat while they hit punching bags.

“We want them to be loud,” Panek said. “We want them to stay on beat, (and we’re) trying to get them to yell.”

“We want them to yell loud, then yell louder,” Classen said, because Parkinson’s disease affects the vocal chords as well. Exercising and shouting helps slow the symptoms.

Rock Steady Boxing forces the muscles into big movements, and the music causes the brain to “fire up.”

“When you have Parkinson’s, you get so used to just focusing on walking,” Classen said. In class, the boxing and talking makes the brain fire more rapidly, and helps regulate the level of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for brain and muscle communication, and Parkinson’s affects the body’s ability to produce the neurotransmitter.

The Memorial-Hospital fitness center gives a discounted membership to those in the Rock Steady program, as well as those in the pulmonary program called “Lively Lungs” and the cardiac wellness program.

Classen says the gym is prepared to “knock down a wall” to expand the area where the Rock Steady class takes place, as well as to increase the number of classes as soon as enough participants demand it. She says the gym now can accommodate 20 people per class.

“We want them here. We want them to feel better,” Classen said.

Louise Peterson, 78, of Swansea, was diagnosed with the disease less than a month ago. She never imagined that she would wear boxing gloves.

“When it comes down to it, this is your health, this is what you have to do (not to fall),” she said.

Big moves

Jacob, the fisherman, has been weight training with Panek in addition to taking the twice-weekly class.

“I figure if I can do three to five hours (of exercise) a week and maybe stop the progression ... in the long run, it will improve my balance,” he said.

Jacob has had near-falls, and fallen to the ground once or twice because of the disease. He took early retirement to avoid the stress of his sales job, but also to drive less. He sold his beloved fishing boat last summer, although he planned to go fishing the morning after class.

During class, Jacob joined the others in punching the bags, walking through a rope ladder and doing exercises designed to get his brain and body to work better together.

“I’ve had trouble with my hand and walking,” he said. “I was sliding. It’s something you have to think about or it doesn’t happen.”

Classen said that’s why the class emphasizes big moves, to help the muscles remember to move big rather than shuffle.

First-time Rock Steady student Howard Simpson, 78, walked out smiling. The self-described lifelong athlete was diagnosed with the disease about two years ago.

“It’s obvious to me,” he said. “It’s either go down (further with the disease’s progression), or go up. I’d rather go up.”

Where classes are available

Belleville Health and Sports Center

  • Where: 1001 South 74th Street, Belleville
  • Contact: 618-398-2778;
  • Cost: Initial assessment is $40; gloves are $25 from the pro shop. Classes are $26 a month for an unlimited membership to the gym for the Rock Steady Boxing participants. (Single membership is $44 a month.)

Rock Steady Boxing Metro STL

  • Where: 404 U.S. 40, Troy
  • Contact: 618-363-5709;
  • Cost: Initial assessment is $50, gloves included. Trainer Dan McLeod offers eight sessions a week, and classes are between $8.50 and $15 a class, depending on the frequency of classes the boxer picks.
  • For more information, go to
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