Counter Punch: Rock Steady Boxing

John Gogel of Mariah Hill punched a punching bag held in place by his wife, Lois, left, and volunteer Rachel Berg during Rock Steady Boxing at the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand on Jan. 9. Rock Steady Boxing teaches non-contact boxing to people with Parkinson’s disease to help improve their agility, muscular endurance, hand-eye coordination and strength, among other health benefits. “I have learned that all these people have Parkinson’s and it’s all the same thing but it’s different for everyone. You’re not alone,” said John’s wife, Lois, who attends the class to assist her husband.

Story by Jonathan Saxon
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump

Though there may be no boxing gyms in the immediate area, Dubois County is home to a special group of fighters who meet in the mornings twice a week at the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand. When they gather with their instructors, they start with some stretching and light warmups to get the blood pumping. Then it’s time to hit the backroom and strap on the gloves.

But they will not fight each other; that is not the purpose of the class. Rather than training participants in professional combat or self-defense, the class uses boxing to create a fitness and rehabilitation program that provides its fighters with a better quality of life. Each fighter is up against the same opponent, one each of them will face for the rest of their lives — Parkinson’s disease.

Betty Huff of Huntingburg lifted a bar to stretch and warm up during Jan. 9 class. The group warms up with dynamic and static stretches before heading to the boxing room. “One of the best things is that I’m around people that have problems just like me and that’s helped a lot. To me, that’s been just as much help as anything else I’ve done,” Huff said. She has noticed an improvement in her balance since she started boxing.

The class is called Rock Steady Boxing, and the class in Ferdinand is just one of 540 programs with around 27,000 participants across the world, according to Rocky Steady Boxing’s website. Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 after Scott Newman, a former Marion County, Indiana prosecutor, was diagnosed with an early stage of Parkinson’s when he was 40 years old.

He adopted an intense boxing regimen to help him cope with his condition and found that the workouts improved his overall health and daily functioning, even slowing down his Parkinson’s symptoms. Word of Newman’s improvement quickly spread and soon, Rock Steady Boxing became a nonprofit organization with the purpose of using boxing exercises and workouts to help those living with Parkinson’s have a fighting chance against their condition.

The program was first brought to the attention of Becky Mathies and Alfredo Sandoval, two physical therapy assistants who work at Advanced Rehabilitation Inc. in Jasper. A Wisconsin woman was looking for a different therapy program for her father, who lives in Jasper, and encouraged them to look into Rock Steady Boxing.

“A patient’s daughter emailed us and said there’s this program for people with Parkinson’s and I think my dad would really like it,” said Mathies of Jasper.

And after following up on the tip and researching the program, she was hooked.

“It was just something I thought was a neat thing to try to do,”

Mathies said. “So I thought, ‘We have a YMCA, surely there’s something that we can do in this area.’”

Ron Schaefer of Dale put on his boxing gloves during the Jan. 9 class.

Mathies and Sandoval, also of Jasper, talked to their managers at ARI and the YMCA to figure out the logistics that would go into setting up a Rock Steady Boxing program in Dubois County.

“Becky (Mathies) and I went to Indianapolis and Evansville this past August to get trained as certified coaches for Rock Steady Boxing,” Sandoval said, adding that the revolving door of Parkinson’s patients coming into the clinic every few months motivated them even more into looking into better treatments that had lasting effects.

“Parkinson’s patients were coming into our clinic after they were falling, hurting (themselves),” he said.

The principle behind Rock Steady Boxing lies in research which suggests that intense, focused workouts can be used to improve skills and senses which Parkinson’s attacks, such as motor function, posture and balance. Rock Steady’s website also states that there is evidence that the exercises act in a “neuro-protective” manner and slow down disease progression.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition caused by a lack of dopamine production in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which is important for body movement. Symptoms of the disease vary, but some of the more common ones include body tremors, slowed movements, stiffness in the limbs, and balance issues, particularly with walking.  

There are five stages of development for the disease, which range from mild symptoms to one side of the body, to more pronounced effects which require the patient to be confined to a wheelchair. There is no cure at this time, but treatment plans include medication, physical therapy and surgery in extreme cases.

Rock Steady is designed to be inclusive to Parkinson’s patients no matter what stage of the disease, as the regimen can be tailored according to what they are safely able to do.

As Kenny Hochgesang of Schnellville, front left, practiced punching a target with volunteer Donna Mathies of Jasper, front right, Ray Mosby of Jasper, center, punched a punching bag with encouragement from his wife, Jane, center left, and volunteer Monica Sicard of Ferdinand during the Jan. 23 class. During the class, participants rotate through a circuit with several different boxing exercises facilitated by coaches and volunteers.

Kenny Hochgesang, a Rock Steady boxer from Schnellville who is participating in his second session, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about three years ago. He didn’t even realize he had it until he started experiencing tremors in his hand, at which point he went to the doctor and received his diagnosis.

“I’ve been so active all my years, I never paid it any attention,” the 71-year-old Army veteran said. “The only reason I knew something was wrong is because my hand would shake. I thought, ‘I ought to go get that checked out.’ And when I did I found out I had Parkinson’s.”

Then there is Ray Mosby of Jasper, who sits in a wheelchair and participates in the class with the help of his wife, Jane. Ray was diagnosed in 2013, after a year of he and Jane noticing significant changes in his gait. His condition has progressed to the point where he has trouble speaking at times.

“His shuffling in his feet is what made us think that something was going on,” Jane said. “Then our chiropractor suggested he go see a neurologist. That’s when we went to see Dr. (Kristi) Nord and she diagnosed him.”

Both Hochgesang and Ray say the Rock Steady Boxing class and the medication prescribed by their doctors have helped them manage their symptoms and live a better quality of life. It’s now easier to do some of the everyday life things — such as moving around their homes — that Parkinson’s had turned into a chore.

Schaefer completed a wall plank Jan. 9. “It gets me up and going,” Schaefer said about Rock Steady Boxing. Before joining the class, he did not know anyone else with Parkinson’s disease and did not realize how many local people were affected by it.

“I’m more improved, I can do things better than I used to. I can coordinate pretty good now,” Hochgesang said. “I can tell the difference because my hand used to really shake a lot. It still shakes, but not as much. It seems to help a lot.”

“It gives him energy and it’s good mentally too,” added Jane, who also helps Ray with leg stretches at home.

Betty Huff is another boxer who discovered the class through ARI. She has been living with Parkinson’s for 15 years, and has participated in two sessions of the class with the help of her son, Daniel. Huff said the difference she has felt in her quality of life since she started working out with Rock Steady Boxing are like night and day.

“It seems like it makes me stronger,” said the 71-year-old Huntingburg resident. “My balance was really bad. I’d fall real easy. When I come here and do the exercises, I don’t have as many falls. It’s hard, but afterwards you feel better.”

Rock Steady Boxing is held in seasonal sessions that last about seven weeks and meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting at 10:30 a.m. Mathies and Sandoval serve as the coaches for a class of about 12 boxers with three to four volunteers that serve as “cornermen” and assist the boxers in their workout, should they need it. For an hour and a half, they all participate in different activities.

“People with Parkinson’s need workouts that challenge their balance, strength, and hand-eye coordination, which are things that you lose when you have Parkinson’s,” Sandoval said “With both therapy and (Rock Steady), our goal is to improve overall function — their ability to go up and down steps, reach something on the floor, reach the top countertops. We’re working on those things we would typically work on in therapy. Our goal is improve overall quality of life and function.”

Mathies said that typical therapy is fairly rigid in its structure and it can be easy for patients to get bored with their routine, which hinders the process. But she said there is so much flexibility with the Rock Steady Boxing class that they can change the types of activities they do in their hour-and-a-half sessions to keep things fresh and fun, while still achieving their wellness goals and slowing disease advancement.

“Therapy is more structured; you have a set goal that you’re working on. You do one thing, then go to the next,” Mathies said. “Here you can just have them work on whatever you want them to work on for that day, and change it up every week, so that they’re not getting stale. We can play basketball, throw Frisbees. There is a slew of things that you can do in this class, the ideas are endless.”

Coach Alfredo Sandoval of Jasper, foreground, ended the Jan. 9 session with wall sits.

After their warmup exercises the boxers strap on their boxing gloves and take off for the backroom of the YMCA, which has heavy bags, speed bags and standing dummies for the fighters to hit on. The boxers are paired off and take turns at the different stations, hitting their bags and taking in the music the coaches play to give them energy and rhythm, such as “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate. The coaches circle around to different stations to offer instruction and encouragement.

They work in three-minute spurts, rotating stations and resting for one minute in between exercise sets. But when the coaches say go, the boxers move with all of the intent and enthusiasm they’re able to muster, hitting their bags as if they are fighting the disease itself.

After 15 minutes in the boxing room, the fighters move to an adjacent space where the coaches have set up various low-intensity activities. The stations include tables set up with metal rods and washers that work coordination, a table with the Operation board game to test fine motor skills, and light, free weights for strength training.

They follow the same pattern as the boxing room; three minutes per station, then a rotation. After another 15 minutes, the class moves back into the boxing room, where the participants repeat the cycle of high-intensity and low-impact workouts one final time before heading back into the main gym to cool down by walking a couple of laps.

Coach Becky Mathies of Jasper, right, worked with Gogel on Jan. 9.

After they are done, the boxers, coaches, and cornermen gather in the middle of the floor in a huddle and break out in a chant about fighting, and beating, Parkinson’s disease. Because even though this is an exercise and wellness course, the class also fills another critical role for the fighters involved: providing the participants with a sense of community and emotional support that can be sapped by a Parkinson’s diagnosis.

They share tips on how to cope at home, share diet information so that what they’re eating doesn’t interfere with their medications and encourage each other to keep fighting the good fight against their condition, no matter what stage they’re at.

“This isn’t just a class, this is more like a support group,” Sandoval said. “When we interviewed many of the boxers before we got the class started, 75 percent of them didn’t know anyone else with Parkinson’s. For many of them, this is the first time they met someone else with Parkinson’s and they didn’t feel alone.”

“I’m with the same people, you know every single one of them has to deal with it every day,” Betty Huff said.  

“You know you’re not alone,” added her son, Daniel. “You don’t really know a lot of people with Parkinson’s. It helps to know and meet other people.”

The winter Rock Steady Boxing session at the YMCA wrapped up Thursday, but Mathies and Sandoval will hold another session from March 6 to April 19. Mathies said they would like to see more people join them and get the help they need to lead fulfilling lives despite their disease.

The coaches can’t force people to walk through that door, but if anyone who is hesitant were to step out on faith and see what the fuss is about, Mathies said they would find a tight-knit group who has each others’ backs in a fight that will span the rest of their lives. The opponent may seem overwhelming at times, but Rock Steady Boxing is here with the knowledge and the numbers to help fighters glove up and hit back.

“Parkinson’s is a disease of extreme frustration,” said Randy Catt, 68, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2010. “You’re life goes into a slow-motion approach to everything: reaching for a glass, walking in the hall. People get frustrated by things they can’t do, so this lets you get back to some of those things. To find more up-time is what we’re all after.”

Mathies likes that the Rock Steady program has proven to improve Parkinson’s patients’ quality of life.

“I find it rewarding,” she said. “We can do something to help them fight the disease and fight back in a different way.”

Schaefer rested between exercises on the boxing circuit during Rock Steady Boxing at the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand on Feb. 6.

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