Four boxers kick, stretch and punch their way across the exercise room, eyes intent. Each jabs and steps. Each moves confidently. Each has Parkinson’s disease.
“No slacking,” yells Sarrisa Curry, moving across the room to check posture and adjust positions. “And please don’t fall.”
Curry began offering the Rock Steady Boxing program, which has been used elsewhere, to area residents with Parkinson’s disease two months ago.
Some boxers enter the gym with tremors and shakes — typical symptoms of the disease — but after an hourlong class of constant movement, footwork and focus, Curry said she can see definite improvement in their symptoms.
The boxing is all noncontact, so participants focus on punching bags hung in front of a wall papered with posters of Muhammad Ali and Rocky.
Curry, owner of In Your Corner Fitness in Overland Park, works with about 40 people with Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that has no cure. The most obvious symptoms are tremors, rigidity and slowness of speech. Later, cognitive problems can occur. Parkinson’s patients are also at a higher risk of depression. Regular exercise can help all of these symptoms, doctors say.
Cindy Worthy began coming about a month ago. She used to practice yoga and swim when she was first diagnosed 19 years ago, but she has been inactive for the past 10 years.
Worthy said she ignored the need to exercise during that decade.
“I practiced denial pretty strongly,” she said.
The classes have helped Worthy stay motivated and become active again. She experiences fewer tremors after she exercises and said she has been encouraged by Curry and the other participants.
It can be difficult to share the diagnosis with others. Worthy said it took her seven years to tell coworkers and friends she had the disease. But the camaraderie of Curry’s classes can help create a sense of community.
“Into positions!” Curry shouts. She bounces on her feet as she moves through the room, offering encouragement to each boxer. She offers a hand when someone’s feet freeze to get them moving again. She tells them to yell “rock steady” as they work, a verbal cue to keep them moving and jolt them out of the repetitive motion ruts that are common with the disease.
Karol Farrell’s face is determined as she moves to a punching bag and begins beating out punches in time with music. She was diagnosed a decade ago and sought out Curry’s program after hearing about a successful Rock Steady program in Indianapolis.
Rock Steady was developed in Indianapolis in 2006 by a Parkinson’s patient, Scott Newman, who witnessed improvements after daily boxing training. Studies at the University of Indianapolis demonstrated that boxing can improve the long-term outlook and lessen symptoms. According to the study, boxers with Parkinson’s have greater physical ability and quality of life than people with Parkinson’s who participate in other forms of exercise.
“There’s really a lot of avenues for people with Parkinson’s disease outside of pharmaceutical drugs,” said George Wong, medical director of the Parkinson’s Clinic of the Ozarks in Springfield. “The body is meant to move.”
Parkinson’s causes body movements to become slow and rigid. Long-term therapy helps smooth and coordinate those movements, a process Wong called “amplitude recalibration.” Boxing, tai chi and cycling all improve speed, endurance and balance.
“In general, exercise makes a big difference for Parkinson’s,” agreed Rajesh Pahwa, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorder Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “With Parkinson’s, everything gets smaller, and so we want them to do big things and get out and exercise.”
Curry believes boxing, in particular, is beneficial for Parkinson’s because it requires forced activity, constant movement and coordinated footwork.
In the future, Curry hopes to own her own exercise space and expand the classes she offers to Parkinson’s patients in further stages of the disease. For now, she claps her hands to finish the session and congratulates each boxer.
Farrell walks smoothly across the floor to grab a towel. “I feel great,” she smiles.