Fighting back: Fort Mill boxing class helps people with Parkinson’s Disease

Gene Baker knew he had to take action two years ago when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. But boxing wasn’t what he initially had in mind.

Baker, 66, is one of about 20 people who attend Rock Steady Boxing at the Fort Mill YMCA to help combat the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. The program at a site called the Complex has been offered for about two years.

“I started taking it because I saw what Parkinson’s can become,” Baker said. “(Rock Steady Boxing) is about strength and balance and mobility. It touches everything that happens as we go through life with Parkinson’s. It helps to defeat the effects of Parkinson’s.”

Parkinson’s Disease is a neurological disease. It is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the brain due to a loss of dopamine, a chemical in the brain. There is currently no known cure.

Dr. James Battista is a neurologist with Novant Health Neurology and Sleep in Charlotte who specializes in movement disorders. He said studies show that exercise may slow progression of Parkinson’s Disease.

“We strongly recommend exercise ... Those studies looked at moderate to high intensity exercise,” Battista said. “Additionally, those who exercise tend to do better with their symptoms of stiffness, slowness and balance issues. When looking at boxing style exercise programs, they incorporate a lot of exercises that work on balance and speed as well as range of motion and are typically at that moderate to high intensity level.”

The class in Fort Mill is taught by Edward Jones, who has a background in boxing to go with 25 years in law enforcement. Jones also is a former six-year Army veteran.

He moved to the area about five years ago and became certified to teach at Rock Steady Boxing. Jones has been teaching self-defense classes, including boxing and kickboxing, for years.

Rock Steady Boxing is a nationally-known program that features exercise classes for Parkinson’s patients. The program emphasizes things like boxing techniques, flexibility movements and strength building.

Jones’ classes consist of nine stations with participants staying at each station three minutes. Each class member goes through four rounds at each station.

“We try to have fun,” Jones said. “It starts with boxing and we do a lot of physical things. We do a lot of stretching and kicking, punching and self-defense for older people. We are always doing something to keep you moving. Stretching is key.”

Battista said “The exact mechanism of how boxing style exercise programs can slow the effects of Parkinson’s Disease is not fully understood. However, exercise stimulates and strengthens motor pathways in the brain and many of these pathways are involved in Parkinson’s disease.”

Jones said he gets as much out of the classes as those who participate.

He said he walked into Tammy Woods’ office at the Complex about two years ago, just days after she saw a report on Rock Steady Boxing and how it helped those with Parkinson’s. Woods is branch manager at the Fort Mill YMCA. She discussed the idea with Jones about starting Rock Steady Boxing at the YMCA.

Woods said the class has been very effective and spread only by word of mouth. She said the Complex is the only place in the local YMCA chain that offers the classes.

“There are so many people it can effect,” Woods said. “If we get good at it, we can actually broaden the horizon because of all the Ys in the Upper Palmetto YMCA. Because it is Rock Steady Boxing, it takes space. You have to find the right place and right partnerships for it to happen.”

The classes cost $150 per month or $20 per session. There is an initial assessment fee of $125.

“The results can vary from individual to individual who do this type of exercise program, but many report that they feel physically better once they have established in a program,” Battista said. “Exercise can help with flexibility, strength, stamina and endurance. Many who have Parkinson’s Disease can be more sedentary, so getting those individuals moving can have significant effects. These programs also allow for social interaction which can also be beneficial.”

Classes at the Complex are offered 1:30-3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“You don’t do morning classes because it is harder for people with Parkinson’s to get up and get going, and you can’t do it in the evenings because once sun down hits, they slow down,” said Woods, who has talked to class participants. “From 1-3 is perfect for us because it is the least people in our building and they have full access to the gym.... They have gone from just a class to a class and a support group, and now they do recreation on the outside.”

Jones said the class shows participants they aren’t alone in their battle.

“It helps them in the way they move and the way they talk, and their motivation,” Jones said. “When they first started coming here, they were really quiet and didn’t want to talk. They feel like they were the only one who has it. When they come in here, we make it a family environment and they start talking.

“When they came in here, they didn’t want to do it. They thought it was too hard, but once they got into it, it helped to pick up their confidence.”

Jones said there are people from all walks of life in his class.

“You got some guys that come in here that were CEOs, some were scientists,” Jones said. “But you work with them to try and get their weight down and to encourage them to do whatever they can do. That makes it fun for these guys.”

Baker said the class helps him continue making the best of his life while battling the disease.

“It is that important to me,” Baker said. “The camaraderie and being in the same boat as everyone else. We help each other and support each other and we have a support group that meets every other Thursday for an hour. It is tough class. You will go away tired and sore.”

Mac Banks: mbanks@comporium.net, @MacBanksFM