Rock Steady Boxing NOVA gym opened in McLean, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., last December. That was the good news for 75-year-old Neil Eisner, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s six years ago and finds boxing an effective way to fight back against the disease.
Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) was designed especially for people with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that leads to tremors and balance problems. Each exercise in the program focuses on a specific skill — one is combining punches on a bag to work on strength, another is crawling across the floor. Eisner says the exercises help him perform everyday tasks like moving around and getting in and out of bed.
Some strengthening exercises target vocal cords. “One of the things that’s interesting enough is [Parkinson’s patients] tend to have a [softer] voice. When you have that lower voice, and people can’t hear you, you don’t realize. So, he asks us to bring our voice clearly and more loudly,” Eisner said.
Becoming an RSB trainer
For personal trainer Alec Langstein, working with an older population is familiar. He understands their health issues and the need for them to stay active.
“My aunt has a gym in Westchester, New York, and she does a Rock Steady Boxing program there,” he said. “She invited me up to her gym to check out the program. She thought it would be a perfect fit for what I do. I helped out with a few classes, and it was just, I thought, an amazing program.”
The Rock Steady Boxing nonprofit was founded in 2006 by attorney Scott C. Newman, who was looking for ways to stay active after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 40. Since then, more than 500 boxing programs have been introduced in the U.S. and around the world.
Langstein went to the organization’s headquarters to become an RSB-licensed trainer, and a few months later, he opened his Rock Steady Boxing NOVA gym.
“It’s a typical boxing program,” he explained. “They focus on balance, hand-eye coordination, reaction, footwork. There is some cognitive stuff because in boxing, certain numbers equal certain punches. So, when I yell certain numbers, you have to move and react at the same time. So, the brain and the body are working together. It’s also taking out the aggression some people may have out of having the disease.”
Improving quality of life
To understand how RSB can help Parkinson’s patients, physical therapist Danielle Sequira says it’s important to know what triggers the symptoms.
“Parkinson’s mainly affects the dopamine-producing cells in the brain. That leads to a lack or a loss of dopamine, which contributes to the movement difficulties,” she said.
While boxing and other exercises don’t cure the disease or stop the dopamine decline, they can improve the patient’s quality of life. Exercises can be modified for people with Parkinson’s, including those in wheelchairs.
“The research shows that exercise helps the brain use dopamine more efficiently,” Sequira said. “My goal usually, after I work with some of my patients with Parkinson’s, is to refer them out to get involved in an exercise program out in the community.”
The social effect
RSB seems to have helped Victoria Hebert reduce the symptoms of her Parkinson’s. She has a tremor in her left hand, and says certain situations trigger it.
“Being cold, being hot, or sitting with a crowd I’m not very comfortable with, I can’t help starting to shake. I end up having to sit on my hand just to keep it still,” she said.
But with this crowd, Hebert doesn’t feel the need to hide the disease. “These people have become very close in the four or five months we’ve been together.”
“That’s the big part of it, sharing experiences with others,” she added. “I have to say, it’s very embarrassing, but over eight years of time I’ve never met another person with Parkinson’s. Then, I came here, and it was like a whole class of 20, 25 people with it. It was kind of surprising to me, kind of surprising that I, myself, didn’t reach out to anybody before that.”