Slow and Rock Steady

By Daniel Hatcher – November 1, 2016
photography by Camille J Wheeler

Until I sat down to write this article, I’d never thought to ask my dad how he found out he had Parkinson’s. Turns out he didn’t know much before I did. In late 2011, his left foot developed a persistent tap, and then his left arm developed a tremor. An MRI ruled out other explanations besides Parkinson’s. 

At the time, it didn’t interfere with his work or playing guitar in church, but walking soon became problematic. He couldn’t walk without dragging his left foot. Still, he didn’t require medication, and his condition seemed stable. After two years, he went on medication, and family members noticed a definite improvement.

For all of 2016, he’s been going to a boxing class specifically designed to help people with Parkinson’s manage their physical symptoms. I know that having a place to exercise and mingle with other people who share his condition has been enormously beneficial for him. 

The motto on the entrance to North Austin’s Ultimate MMA Fitness gym asks all who enter to “fight to be fit.” However, it’s quickly apparent that the people who arrive on Monday morning for the Rock Steady Boxing classes aren’t fighting for a sleekly muscled physique. They’re fighting to maintain the freedom of movement that most of us take for granted.

They have Parkinson’s Disease, which is a neurologically degenerative disease that slowly robs people of their cognitive and physical abilities. The depletion of dopamine in their brains make even routine movements require a Herculean effort. Although the disease tends to set in later in life, the defining symptoms have been seen in every age group. The youngest Rock Steady fighter is 46; the oldest is 85. 

For reasons that are poorly understood but empirically obvious, forced anaerobic exercise has shown to be an effective therapy for Parkinson's treatment along with proper medical management. Robert Izor, M.D., medical director at Neurology Solutions Consultants, who has 11 years of experience working with Parkinson's Disease says that because the standard drug treatment has its own constellation of undesirable side effects, he tries to keep his patients off medication as long as possible. 

“The disease not only affects dopamine, but also other neurotransmitters. Your motivation, your interest in doing things, suffers. Trying to get Parkinson’s patients to do vigorous exercise is a challenge, and I think that’s where Rock Steady has some advantages—because it has that group feeling, and a coach that pushes you,” Izor said.

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Having a support group is especially necessary when faced with a debilitating illness. The disease can have an isolating effect on those afflicted since their diagnosis doesn’t extend to their co-workers, friends and spouses. More than just a workout, the Rock Steady classes provide a place where fellow Parkinson’s sufferers can go to find support in a community of people going through similar physical deterioration. Rock Steady participant Dave Streilein described the disease as “a personal process where the individual disappears” and said that without having a program that pushes him to extend his physical abilities and relate with other patients in an active, focused environment, he’d feel left to fend for himself.

Rock Steady Boxing is the first and only program of its kind. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2006 by a former Indianapolis district attorney who found a high-intensity boxing regimen to dramatically improve the symptoms of his Parkinson’s. The program has since spread to five countries and 43 states and has increased membership in Austin from three to 90 people since opening in Nov. 2015. There are three locations in Austin, one in Georgetown, and one opening in Lakeway on Nov. 1 of this year.

Owner and head coach Kristi Richards came to Rock Steady by way of senior fitness, a demographic she fell in love with while taking the classes during a pregnancy. She was drawn to this group because of their penchant for wisdom and humor. After the birth of her third child, she taught a senior fitness program called Silver Sneakers for five years before finding out about the Rock Steady program from a client. The video she saw of two tenacious Parkinson’s sufferers sparring with each other delighted her with its absurdity. “The idea of Parkinson’s patients hitting each other was just crazy to me. I mean, isn’t that what causes Parkinson’s?” was her initial reaction. Muhammad Ali was undoubtedly not far from her mind.

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In the 1,276-square-foot training room, Richards first leads the group through a series of stretches. While they’re seated, she walks around the room asking them questions about their opinions and personal lives.

“What has changed most in your lifetime?” is the question of the day. The most obvious answer is technology. Another man muses that getting old is the biggest change he's experienced. The observation that is felt most disheartening to the group is the animosity in politics these days. In all, their thoughts are humorous and honest—there’s a serene wisdom you can feel while standing in a room full of people asked to examine the quirks of their era.

After an obstacle course to practice walking and balancing, the fighters partner up and switch off at intervals at stations for exercises that work on balance, core strength, boxing, and jump rope. After 45 minutes, everyone is sweaty and energized.

Camaraderie and friendly competition in a high non-contact intensity group workout is healthy for anyone, at any age. The success of Rock Steady Boxing can serve as a reminder that exercise has a neuroprotective benefit. At the end of each class, the fighters get into a group huddle and encourage each other to “Rock Steady!” as in, to go out and face the world without succumbing to the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s.

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