Boxers go 12 rounds with Parkinson’s in South Carolina


GREENWOOD, SC (AP) — Fists flew.

The thud of overturned speed bags filled the YMCA’s indoor gymnasium as the Rock Steady Boxing band literally battled Parkinson’s disease.

Gloves on, songs from the “Rocky” soundtrack, the seven senior members of the group practiced their jabs and hooks on April 27 under the guidance of health and wellness director Jan Rushton. Each band member has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain disease.

The disease can cause tremors and loss of motor control, but putting up their dukes and dueling with Parkinson’s in the gym can help combat these symptoms.

“I fall a lot. Sometimes in the bathroom,” Tom McHugh said.

He described the feeling as a sudden loss of control, as if his legs had given way under him. He said he often fell backwards, with little control over how he fell. It’s scary not knowing how much the fall will hurt him or if someone will be there to help him up.

But, over time, coming to those boxing classes at the YMCA, McHugh noticed he had more control. His balance had improved and he had the strength to stand as he had collapsed before.

“I felt a kind of euphoria,” he said. “I always thought I was doomed to this.”

Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 in Indiana with a mission to give patients with Parkinson’s disease a fighting chance against the degenerative symptoms of the disease. When Rushton took over as health and wellness director at the Lakelands Area YMCA, she had worked with only one person at Wellness Works who had Parkinson’s disease.

“One of the first things I did was put ‘the Parkinson’s program’ on this whiteboard,” she said. “The CEO said it could have been a bit ambitious, but I wanted to figure out how to make it work.”

While doing her research, she found the Indiana-based band Rock Steady. But as she prepared to work with them, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The YMCA was closed for a while and other issues had to take priority.

“When we reopened, the CEO said, well, have you heard of Rock Steady Boxing,” she said.

The nonprofit had also closed, but through virtual training, she and wellness coordinator Sunni Carwile have completed the necessary training and certification. Boxing is not part of Rushton’s background, so she learned a lot at once. But quickly, she got the gist — stabbing and hooking speed bags, hitting heavy bags, and learning how boxing synchronizes cognitive and physical skills to combat the neurological degeneration that accompanies Parkinson’s disease.

“What makes the program so amazing is that it’s for anyone with Parkinson’s disease,” Rushton said. “Twenty years ago, if you were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, you were told here are your meds, go home, get your house in order and prepare to die.”

Although people normally notice the tremors identified with Parkinson’s disease, she said there are many other symptoms – the loss of body control affects the muscles in the mouth, making it difficult to eat or not drool . Balance problems are commonplace. This group offers these people a safe place where they feel like they are among peers and in a non-judgmental environment where they don’t have to explain their condition to others. They all understand each other.

“They feel like kids again,” Rushton said. “Who doesn’t like to hit things? Plus, they can tell their grandkids they’re boxers.

On April 27, they celebrated one year of these classes. The group started with stretching, then a coordination activity where they stood in a circle passing a ball and naming a flick as they caught it. It’s meant to synchronize cognitive activity with physical movement, Rushton said.

Then they started practicing punching one arm at a time to the speed bags. Subsequently, they rotated through various activity stations. At one o’clock, they stood over a table of lit buttons, looking to test their reaction speed and hand-eye coordination by pressing the one lit orange. At others, they would test their balance on a balance pad an inch off the ground or dribble a basketball with their boxing gloves.

A station made them read aloud a page of “Green Eggs and Ham”.

“One of the things that happens with Parkinson’s disease is that we lose our voice,” Fred Latham said as he walked over to the page. “I used to sing in all kinds of choirs. She makes us read them aloud.

A popular station is Parker, a training dummy named for Parkinson’s disease. They liked to throw tedders to Parker’s chin, with more than a few hits below the belt.

“It’s great, with Mac (Hubbard) in particular, to see him hitting Parker,” Carwile said. “He was a little uncertain at first, but once he hit Parker he was like, OK, I like that.”

At the end of the training, the group enjoyed a birthday cake and shared some thoughts on their time in the group.

“I realized I wasn’t alone in this disease,” Hubbard said. “There are other people who know what I’m going through.”

Latham’s doctor told her that exercise was the key to living with Parkinson’s disease.

“Welcome to the exercise,” he said, smiling and gesturing to the group.

“I have to fight just to get in here. I was recently diagnosed,” said Barb Schuster. “It gave me something to do, and it really helped me.”

Bob Thomas grinned from ear to ear as he punched the speed bag or tested his fists against the heavy bag. It’s because he knows exactly what he’s fighting.

“It helped me stay focused on it, not on me, but on me.”


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