Parkinson’s down for the count


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Boxers who suffer from Parkinson’s disease participate in the Rock Steady program at the Unlimited Kickboxing facility on Merritt Island.

SENIOR LIFE Ernest Arico

Their mission is simple — if you suffer from Parkinson’s disease don’t give up — “fight back.”

Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) is a first-of-its-kind, Indianapolis-based nonprofit gym founded in 2006 by former Marion County, Ind. prosecutor Scott C. Newman, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 40.

The gym provides an effective form of physical exercise to people who are living with Parkinson’s. Locally, the RSB program operates out of the facilities at Unlimited Kickboxing at 55 Goodwin Drive, Suite 103 on Merritt Island.

Parkinson’s is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement, most notably causing tremors. Some treatments and drugs can help but the condition can’t be cured. More than 200,000 U.S. cases are reported yearly. In Brevard County alone, 4,000 to 5,000.

According to Courtney Henderson, a manager, certified trainer and coach at Unlimited Kickboxing, RSB East Central Florida and its 684 affiliates worldwide (including Trinidad and the United Kingdom) give people with Parkinson’s hope by improving their quality of life through a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum.

“It’s amazing what this program has done for so many people,” she said. “The program enables them to work on their balance, vocal cords, dexterity of their hands and flexibility.”

Various studies in the 1980s and 1990s support the notion that rigorous exercise, emphasizing gross motor movement, balance, core strength and rhythm could favorably impact range of motion, flexibility, posture, gait and activities of daily living.

More recent studies, most notably at the Cleveland Clinic, focused on the concept of intense “forced” exercise, and have begun to suggest that progress is made in all stages of Parkinson’s by those participating in the RSB program. RSB uses non-contact, boxing-style fitness routines that improve their quality of life and sense of efficacy and self-worth.

In addition, new studies suggest that intense exercise programs (like boxing) might be “neuro-protective,” and can work to delay the progression of Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

(A recent ESPN report revealed that pound for pound, the toughest and most demanding sport in the world is boxing.)

Henderson said RSB provides encouragement through a “tough love” approach, inspiring maximum effort, speed, strength, balance and flexibility.

“Boxing works by moving your body in all planes of motion while continuously changing the routine as you progress through the workout,” she said.

RSB classes have proven that anyone, at any level of Parkinson’s, may lessen their symptoms and lead a healthier and happier life.

Mary Hutchison of Indialantic says she’s living proof the program works.

“Three years ago, I couldn’t even drive a car, let alone do anything,” she said. “But ever since I’ve been in this program, I’ve been able to drive again and do many activities I couldn’t do before.”

RSB offers different levels of classes to accommodate patients with varying degrees of Parkinson’s. Training classes are taught by certified personal trainers that include an exercise program that attacks Parkinson’s at its vulnerable neurological points.

While focusing on overall fitness, strength training, reaction time and balance, workouts include: focus mitts, heavy bags, speed bags, double-ended bags, jump rope, core work, calisthenics and circuit weight training. No boxing experience is required and people of all ages are invited to participate. Boxers, both male and female, range in age from the mid-30s to early 90s.

Joe Reis, 84, of Merritt Island, is the oldest member of the local program. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. and a disabled veteran, Reis first noticed the symptoms of Parkinson’s two years ago. He was diagnosed with the disease in March. The program has changed his life.

“Everything they do here is fantastic,” he said. “They’re charming people. They know what they’re doing. The program has enabled me to be more physically active.”

Classes meet from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The cost is $10 a class. The first class is free.

“Our mission at Unlimited Kickboxing is to build confidence through increased mobility, balance, dexterity and multi-tasking,” Henderson said. “We also provide encouragement, camaraderie and hope to all our boxers. Two of our mottos are: Every punch counts and every victory is worth celebrating.”

Gladys Gurtner, 70, of Merritt Island, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008 when she was 60 years old. She said the RSB program has had a big impact on her life.

“I truly never thought it would have provided me with dramatic physical improvement along with preparing me to accept the challenges of living with Parkinson’s,” she said. “Every time we have a class, Courtney Henderson is very excited to try to have something new for us, to challenge us and to have fun, too. Each one of the instructors give us 100 percent at every class.” 

Larry Smith, 72, of Viera, heard about the RSB program from a Parkinson’s support group. “This has helped a lot,” said Smith, a member of the Rotary Club of Viera. “I’ve told all my friends about it. It’s great.”

Bill Clautice, 81, of Cocoa Beach, joined the program five months ago. “It’s a pretty good deal,” he said. “There’s great camaraderie and the staff really challenges you.”

Since 2009, Unlimited Kickboxing has been offering classes for kids, teens and adults in fitness, self-defense and competition.

Unlimited Kickboxing was started by owner and operator David DiQuollo. He started his professional kickboxing career at the age of 19, with his last professional fight in 2012.

For more information about Unlimited Kickboxing and the Rock Steady East Central Florida program, call 321-368-9307, 321-720-4167 or go to unlimited.rsbaffiliate.com