Boxing training aims to help Parkinson’s patients fight back

When Gretchen Westgaard learned that her mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2014, she went into action.

Westgaard, a certified Pilates instructor who lives in Laguna Beach, saw a CBS News report about a unique boxing-inspired exercise program called Rock Steady that aims to halt the symptoms of Parkinson’s, if not reverse them.

Its founder, Parkinson’s patient and former Marion County, Ind., prosecutor Scott Newman, said he was experiencing an improved quality of life as a result of the high-energy workouts. In 2006, he created the nonprofit Rock Steady Boxing program, the first in the United States to practice a noncontact form of boxing to help people fight Parkinson’s, a degenerative central nervous system disorder that mainly affects motor functions. There is no cure.

When Westgaard learned there was a Rock Steady boxing program at American Gym in Costa Mesa established by certified personal trainer Anne Adams, she tried to register her mother, Gay Sutherland, who also lives in Laguna. But the program was full.

Then she decided to volunteer with the idea that it might help her mom get in faster. When that didn’t happen, she pondered becoming a certified coach and opening her own Rock Steady program.

She opened Rock Steady at MMT Fitness in Mission Viejo last March.

At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive to use boxing as a therapeutic approach to Parkinson’s, given the widely held belief that former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali’s boxing career contributed to his contracting the illness.

The difference is that clients using the fitness routine don’t fight each other but rather use it to help build strength and lessen the symptoms that hinder balance, speech and motor skills.

Westgaard’s idea to open her own program began coming together when she noticed her neighbor Nick Hernandez boxing in his garage. She needed someone with a boxing background to help her, and he did. He and Rudy Oropeza are Westgaard’s boxing coaches.

Westgaard’s fears about taking on a program with so much responsibility diminished after she learned that considerable support was available.

“At first I wondered, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” she said. “But I had lots of help from the Rock Steady forum with over 300 people in it. Everyone puts in ideas about the workout, and Anne also helped me a lot.”

Adams, whose Rock Steady program was the first in California four years ago, also was motivated by a parent with Parkinson’s. She says she has seen her father go from being in a wheelchair to walking with the help of the Rock Steady program in Indiana, where he lives.

Sutherland said she also has seen improvement as a result of the classes. For example, she said, the boxing has helped stop the progression of shaking in her right hand.

“The harder you box, and when you feel like you can’t do any more and then push yourself, that’s when the magic, stopping the progression, happens,” she said. “Gretchen and Nick started the program because of me, and I really appreciate that. I don’t even think about it. I just go on with life and feel like I’m doing something for myself instead of just taking medication.”

Rock Steady clients range in age from 30s to 80s.

“I love them and have become so attached to everyone,” Westgaard said.

Earl Ennis, a student of Westgaard’s who was diagnosed two years ago, said, “Boxing helped me out quite a bit — my balance, standing a little straighter, and the tremors are less frequent.”

He said that when he missed two weeks of the regimen because of an upper respiratory condition, the tremors returned.

Oropeza and Hernandez said that according to the U.S. Olympic Committee, boxing is rated the hardest exercise regarding the commitment to building muscle memory, which Parkinson’s affects.

One of the first major studies on the effect of boxing therapy on Parkinson’s was led by Stephanie Combs-Miller, director of research for the University of Indianapolis’ Krannert School of Physical Therapy. She said that while it is not a cure, it can prevent the progression of the disease and slow the symptoms.

The study involved 88 volunteers with Parkinson’s disease, half of whom participated in the Rock Steady boxing regimen, which includes lateral foot work, bag punching, stretching, resistance exercises and aerobic training. The study found that “boxers demonstrated significantly better balance and walking function over time, as well as greater distance on a functional reach test, compared to people who chose other forms of exercise. The survey responses also indicated a higher perceived quality of life among the Rock Steady participants,” according to the university.

Leonard Boedeker, a student in Adams’ class in Costa Mesa for eight months, said, “There’s a whole mental side of boxing here, a camaraderie that takes place between everybody and is just as important as the physical workout.”

Adams said it takes courage for a Parkinson’s patient just to enter the door.

“The first step is the hardest one,” she said. “It’s scary being diagnosed, like they have a sign on them. But they’ve already mastered fighting the disease just being here.”

As many as 1 million people in the United States currently are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and more than 60,000 are diagnosed each year, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Rock Steady Boxing South OC at MMT Fitness is at 23681 Via Linda, Mission Viejo, (949) 244-3480.

Rock Steady Boxing Southern California is at 1638 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 370-0607.

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Susan Hoffman is contributor to Times Community News.