A group of those of us who have both Parkinson’s disease and a sense of humor call our support group “Movers and Shakers,” recognizing that moving is our goal and shaking is not.
To help us, we participate in Rock Steady Boxing, a name with a heavy emphasis on the “rock steady.”
We meet every Wednesday afternoon at Title Boxing Club in a small boxing gym at 1029 Davis St. There, we push our bodies, and each other, to the limit. But for our Parkinson’s diagnosis, we would never have met.
Maybe there’s nothing extraordinary happening there, but it sure seems special and worthy of sharing introductions to Rock Steady Boxing, the class at Title Boxing Club for those with Parkinson’s disease, and the people who knowingly, or maybe unknowingly, provide some life lessons.
Contrary to some misconceptions, Parkinson’s is not a cookie-cutter disease. People have different symptoms, motor and non-motor, with different rates of progression. Some have less visible symptoms after many years, and some exhibit more symptoms faster.
One proven fact about Parkinson’s treatment is that strenuous exercise helps with Parkinson’s symptoms – and the Rock Steady Boxing classes are definitely strenuous.
Our trainer at Title Boxing, Tae Hwang, says when we are almost ready to stop, “Your pain is my pleasure.”
We know he’s not serious but we also know he’s only half joking. He says it’s a good day when “everyone is tired but not defeated.”
Rock Steady Boxing is about balance, hand-eye coordination, endurance and conditioning as much as it is about boxing. Hwang is certified to teach it. Most of us will say we like pounding the bags more than other exercises but one of the reasons we come is because Tae pushes us to do more.
Debbie Blanc, a boxer in her own right, volunteers to assist. She makes us think we are actually boxers, teaching us technique as if she were preparing us to go in the ring.
“I’m looking at boxers, not Parkinson’s patients. The right technique means the best body training,” Debbie says.
Even though her motto is, “I will make you work,” she says the real satisfaction comes from “being with a group of people who work hard, help each other out and have terrific spirit.”
Some of our real-life lessons come from watching everyone go through the weekly exercises. And it turns out, almost everyone does watch everyone else.
I watch Hillorie Morrison when she dances to the music in our walking warm-ups. I like her gait and she inspires me to try to put some rhythm in my flatfooted style. Judy Freitag notices that I can do planks now. “I’m watching you get better, “ she tells me.
Sheila Meyer, who is two weeks new to Rock Steady Boxing, admits she watches everybody, saying, “If I see somebody doing something I can’t do, it gives me the idea that with some work, I can do it, too.”
Liz Tisdahl picks a punching bag at the back of the gym. She doesn’t specifically watch anybody but she sees everybody.
“I like exercising with the group. It’s fun,” she says.
Heather Wolens moves too fast to watch other people. Her job is to focus on herself and slow down. Quick movements cause falls.
Steve Lemieux-Jordan explains we do a different kind of watching.
“I was working at the polls last election, and someone asked me what he was doing that I was shaking my head at him. Well, I was just shaking, but it made me self-conscious. I never have that feeling at Rock Steady,” Steve says.
Paul Barker and Steve have been friends for more than 30 years, before any Parkinson’s diagnosis. Even though they both take the program seriously, they also do a lot of wisecracking, interjected with some dark humor. Paul said he picked it up in the Marines.
“When you’re facing something horrific, the wisecracking is a lot funnier than the alternatives,” he says.
Their back and forth sets a tone we all enjoy and expect, so much so that if one of them isn’t there, I take it upon myself to pick on the other one.
Paul comes to boxing because he can’t get tough with himself by himself.
“Tae motivates me to do strenuous stuff at the gym that I won’t do at home. And, besides, I can’t have a corny sense of humor by myself.”
Judy is one of the few who likes exercise best. And it works for her. Most of us are exhausted after a session but Judy goes home to garden, or to ride her bike or to hike. And she has a lot of knowledge about Parkinson’s. Fortunately for the rest of us, she’s willing to share.
“That connection between the brain and the muscles is so important. The combination of power moves, endurance and conditioning create the muscle memory that Parkinson’s people need,” Judy said.
Hillorie never liked exercising.
“I like to read,” she said.
But she knew that wouldn’t work with Parkinson’s and, with fairly mild symptoms, she wanted to do whatever she could to stop its progression. Rock Steady works for her.
“I like punching the bag. I like being in a group of people who are struggling with the same thing I’m struggling with and have good spirits about it. And I like Tae. He pushes me. And he can make me laugh while he’s doing it, which is a miracle in itself,” Hillorie says.
As Ruth Begelman said, “Parkinson’s is not a club I wanted to join, but I’m so grateful for Rock Steady Boxing. As much as the challenges of the physical demands, I need and welcome the company.”
Rock Steady Boxing, on Wednesday afternoons on Davis Street, is a little slice of life with a magic message: Do what you can to be the best you can. Do it with good spirit and shared camaraderie.
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