Steady as a Rock: Locals battle Parkinson’s with boxing, camaraderie
Kicks. Jabs. Left hooks and uppercuts.
These boxing terms are not usually associated with Parkinson’s disease, but attendees of Rock Steady Boxing classes are anything but stereotypical.
If it’s mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday, there are 15 or more Space Coast locals gathered for a 90-minute workout and they have one thing in common: they are fighting back against the progression of Parkinson’s disease.
“We always say that if you know one person with Parkinson’s, you know one person,” Courtney Henderson, Rock Steady-certified personal trainer, said. Henderson is one of three coaches at Unlimited Kickboxing Inc. on Merritt Island. In February, the mainstream kickboxing gym became a Rock Steady Boxing affiliate, joining more than 600 locations throughout the world serving 25,000 people with Parkinson’s through the nonprofit organization.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative movement disorder that varies in degree from person to person but causes deterioration of speech, balance, motor skills and sensory function. It has no definitive cause, or cure, and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation reports that in the U.S., 1 million people are living with the disease.
“We don’t know what causes Parkinson’s. It’s a progressive disease and there is no cure,” Henderson said. “Research has found, though, that focus on forced, intense exercise can exert a neuroprotective influence that could actually slow the progression of the disease.”
Henderson, along with gym owner David DiQuollo and personal trainer Ryan Spadafora, traveled to Indianapolis in 2017 to obtain certification to teach the Rock Steady program. The concept for Rock Steady Boxing was developed in 2006 by Scott Newman, a Marion County, Indiana prosecutor who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40. Newman started to research the best activities for slowing the inevitable progression of the disease. He found that boxing topped the list of active endeavors that gave people with Parkinson’s a boost, based on several research studies. The concept of Rock Steady was born.
At the East Central Florida location, participants can bring a caregiver along for the class, but it isn’t a requirement. Caregivers can take the class for free.
“It’s great for spouses, kids and grandkids to come and do the workout with their loved ones. It gives them a chance to see the types of activities we’re doing in these classes and the support to do something active together,” Henderson said.
Bill Knott of Titusville was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 27 years ago. The progressive disease has impacted his coordination, speech and overall health. Since February, Knott has attended the Rock Steady class twice per week.
“His stamina and endurance for things like taking walks has improved. He is definitely more steady,” Betsy Knott, Bill’s wife, said. “The instructors seem to know just when to push them, and when to let up. He is challenged in these classes yet always motivated to come to the next one.”
Trenten Champagne, 16, of Mims recently attended a Rock Steady class with his grandfather, Robert Champagne, of Port St. John.
“I thought that this was a perfect chance to spend time with him and also get in a workout,” Trenten Champagne said.
On a recent vacation to South Carolina, Robert Champagne attended another Rock Steady-affiliate gym. This summer, he plans to attend classes at another in Rhode Island.
“I like that I can attend other places and know I’ll be seeing the benefits that I see here,” Robert Champagne said, citing camaraderie and improved balance as two perks.
Fran Majcher of Viera attends classes twice per week with her husband, Mark. She says that even the neurologist is impressed with the improvements she sees in Mark — and in his mood — since he started attending Rock Steady classes in February.
“We’ve done other physical therapy through the years and this is right up there with what has worked best for him,” Fran Majcher said. “Specifically, his balance and cross-body movements have improved.”
Mary Hutchinson of Indialantic has been attending two classes per week since February and she has seen her physical strength improve.
“Before I started coming to these classes, I couldn’t get down and up off the ground by myself. Last week, I was able to get up off the floor by myself in two minutes,” Hutchinson said. “I never thought I’d be able to do that again, ever.”
Dan Shoemaker of Cocoa says his limb coordination and balance have vastly improved since he started attending classes twice per week in February.
“Hitting the pads a coach is holding up is my favorite exercise,” he said.
DiQuollo, Henderson and Spadafora attend every class as coaches, allowing for customization of the exercises and one-on-one training.
“These instructors are incredible. They know how to motivate us,” Larry Smith of Melbourne said. Smith and his wife, Karen, run a Parkinson’s support group at One Senior Place in Melbourne.
“We tell everyone about it. We want everyone to know about this resource,” Larry Smith said.
Bill Clautice of Cocoa Beach has attended twice per week since April. He says the social aspect is what keeps him coming back.
“It’s easy to get in a funk, to not want to do anything. Since I’ve been coming, I’ve been really pulled out from that funk and now I actually want to do things,” Clautice said. “The people here motivate me to come. It’s a very eclectic group.”
Rita McCabe is a newer Rock Steady attendee who heard about the classes from friends.
“This is my second class and I was not sure if I was going to make it this morning because I was feeling dizzy. I really wanted to come again, though, and I’m so glad I did,” McCabe said. “I feel so much better. I was really motivated to come back after my first class.”
Rock Steady Boxing at Unlimited Kickboxing Inc.
55 Goodwin Drive, Merritt Island
Classes: 90 minutes, 2 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Friday
Attendees can move at own pace, takes breaks or leave early.
Cost: $10-$15 per class, based number of classes purchased at one time.
First class is free.
Facebook: Rock Steady Boxing East Central Florida