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BRUNSWICK — In her fight against Parkinson’s disease, Karen Jones has tried treatments as complex as deep brain stimulation and as basic as exercise.

Gloving up? That’s new.

“It helps,” said Jones, 63, taking a break from her Rock Steady Boxing class at the Landing YMCA in Brunswick. “This pushes us to our limits.”

They’re two things that most people wouldn’t put together — Parkinson’s disease and boxing — but for the past 10 years an Indiana group has been doing just that, running intense, no-contact boxing classes just for Parkinson’s patients to help with balance, range of motion, freezing and other movement problems that plague people with the disease. Today, there are 280 Rock Steady programs in 44 states and 12 international locations.

Last month, the first one started in Maine.

“We make it light, make it fun, make it energetic. We try not to treat them like patients. When they’re here, they’re athletes. They’re boxers,” said Zach Hartman, head Rock Steady coach in Brunswick. “Our main focus is for them to do things that nobody else thinks they can do, that personally they don’t think they can do until they do it.”
Things like punching heavy bags, running speed bag drills, flipping small tractor tires across the gym floor and throwing fierce uppercuts.
“When (Rock Steady participants) tell people what they do, people think they’re crazy,” Hartman said. “And they think I’m crazy when I tell them they can do it.”

Attendance has doubled since the twice-a-week Brunswick classes started in mid-December.

It’s proven so popular — and the need is so great — that people in at least two other towns are looking at setting up their own Rock Steady programs. One of them, in Lewiston, could start in the next couple of months.

In the meantime, Mid Coast Hospital, which runs the program at the Brunswick Y, is already considering expanding its Rock Steady program. New people show up with every class.

“I think I’ll love it,” said 58-year-old Laurie Hadlock, of Freeport, who gripped her walking stick as she sat in on a class and watched more than a dozen fellow Parkinson’s patients jab at the air to warm up. “There’s so little you can do for Parkinson’s around here. Something other than physical therapy.”

‘Get your gloves and get going’

Parkinson’s is a nervous system disorder that causes the brain to stop producing dopamine, affecting the way people move. It can cause tremors, stiffness, stooped posture, balance problems and “freezing,” or the sudden inability to move.

Nearly one million Americans have Parkinson’s and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed every year, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. The Maine Parkinson Society estimates that some 7,000 Mainers have the disease.

Parkinson’s gets worse over time. Although treatments like medication and deep brain stimulation can help, there is no cure.

Most people are 60 or older when they’re diagnosed, but young-onset Parkinson’s can affect people under 40. Actor Michael J. Fox is one of the most famous people with young-onset Parkinson’s. He was about 30 when he was diagnosed in the early 1990s.

Another famed Parkinson’s patient: boxer Muhammad Ali. He was diagnosed in 1984, when he was in his early 40s.

Although it’s unclear what causes Parkinson’s in anyone, including Ali, it’s commonly believed that Ali’s decades-long boxing career — so many hard hits to the head, so much brain trauma — contributed to his disease.

So when people hear the words “boxing” and “Parkinson’s” in the same sentence, they don’t tend to think good things.

“The big thing here is we’re noncontact,” Hartman said. “So, obviously, nobody is getting hit. They hit the bags, but nobody is getting hit back.”

Rock Steady Boxing was started in Indiana in 2006 by Scott Newman, a former Marion County prosecutor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 40. Newman realized his movement improved when he did intense, high-energy boxing workouts, and he thought they might help others with the disease. The first Rock Steady class had six participants.

The program drew media attention, and with each new story Rock Steady got calls from people wanting to know where they could find a class near them. The answer: They couldn’t. So in 2012 Rock Steady started offering a training camp for people who wanted to set up their own program.

By the end of 2012 there were six affiliates. By the end of 2013 there were 18. By the end of 2014 there were 34.

Today there are 280, including locations in Australia, Canada, Holland, Italy, New Zealand and Sweden.

Mid Coast Hospital began looking into Rock Steady a 18 months ago. The hospital already hosted support groups and exercise programs for Parkinson’s patients, but Rock Steady seemed unique. The hospital sent Hartman, a Mid Coast clinical exercise physiologist, and Jennifer Anderson, a Mid Coast physical therapist, to train in Indiana. It partnered with the Landing YMCA to offer 90-minute Rock Steady classes twice a week.

Classes were open to all Parkinson’s patients, regardless of how well or how poorly they could move. A patient’s doctor had to sign off on participation.

Eight people showed up for the first class. Within a few weeks there were twice that many.

“We’ve had a new face in every class,” Hartman said. “And in every class we’ve had somebody show up who didn’t know anything about it, didn’t talk to us about it beforehand, just (heard through) word of mouth or saw it in the paper and just showed up and wanted more information.”

Last Tuesday, Hadlock was a new face.

“I used to be so active,” she said, settled into a folding chair. “I miss it a lot.”

Hadlock loved to bike, run and ski — both downhill and cross-country. Battling Parkinson’s for the past seven years, she can’t do any of those things anymore, not comfortably, not without fear of falling. Even the lowest of low-impact exercise is a problem.

“Swimming, my legs don’t seem to work the right way,” she said.

As Hadlock looked on, a dozen class participants and half a dozen coaches and personal helpers — called cornermen, as in boxing — warmed up, throwing exaggerated uppercuts and drilling imaginary speed bags despite trembling hands and stooped shoulders.

In a few minutes the class split into two, half pulling on gloves and half moving to more general exercise stations designed to improve agility, strength, core and balance. Although participants ranged in age from 50-something to 80-something, some shuffling and stiff, coaches didn’t give anyone a break.

“You don’t get to pull the old-folks card around here,” one helper said lightly to a man who lagged behind. “Get your gloves and get going.”

Participants spend 70 seconds at each station, with 30 seconds of rest in between. For the minute they’re on, they’re very much on, focused with all their energy on pummeling a heavy bag or lifting their arms high enough to send a weighted ball bouncing across the floor.

“(Other exercise classes) would be similar to what we do for a warm-up in this program,” Hartman said.

Most participants were sweating by their third station, but while participants control their own pace — slowing or stopping when they need to — no one flagged.

“Nice job, Douglas. You’re working hard today,” Anderson said as 81-year-old Douglas Richmond, of Harpswell, punched the heavy bag, aiming at where an opponent’s gut would be.

He hit the 80-pound bag hard enough to make it swing.

Nearby, Jones, her black boxing gloves adorned with pink and orange flowers, sparred with Hartman, concentrating on moving as he moved with a right cross, left cross, duck, weave.

At the buzzer to stop, they high-fived.

“Woo!” Jones exclaimed.

Progress

It’s not just about feeling good in the moment. Rock Steady’s founding group, which is now a nonprofit, points to studies that show intense exercise can help ease symptoms and may slow the progression of Parkinson’s. Other Parkinson’s experts agree.

In Brunswick, some participants have already seen improvement. Some of the changes are small — one person’s balance is slightly better, another trembles a little bit less. Some improvements are bigger, like the man who couldn’t get himself up off the floor before but can now — an important ability for someone to live independently.

Jones has noticed she’s freezing less. Richmond has more energy, better range of motion, a straighter posture. His goal is to be able to lift his kayak over his head so he can go paddling.

“I can feel progress,” he said.

At least two others hope to bring that kind of progress to Parkinson’s patients elsewhere in Maine. One person wants to start Rock Steady classes in the Bangor region.

Kelly LaCroix, a per-diem exercise physiologist who’s worked with Mid Coast, plans to start Rock Steady classes in Lewiston.

“Lewiston-Auburn, there’s a huge population in that area and they really need stuff too,” she said. “Hopefully I can do something for those people.”

LaCroix is looking for permanent space. Until she finds it, she’s partnered with the YWCA in Lewiston to temporarily offer the classes there. She’s waiting for equipment and hopes to start her Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes by March.

Even though it has the only Rock Steady program in Maine now, Mid Coast is happy to see others set up shop.

“We’re all about helping people,” said Cate Parker, director of community health and wellness for Midcoast.

In Brunswick, Parkinson’s patients may soon get even more Rock Steady. Mid Coast is considering adding a third exercise room, which would allow more people to join. It’s also considering increasing its number of classes from two each week to three.

After checking out a class, Hadlock couldn’t wait to sign up.

“I love it,” she said. “It looks like a good workout.”

[email protected]

Want more information on a Rock Steady class in Maine?

Rock Steady Boxing Mid Coast

Email: [email protected]

Call: 373-6363

Rock Steady Boxing L-A

Email: [email protected]

Call: 576-1529


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