When Ron Nelson, 83, fell around Thanksgiving last year, breaking five ribs and earning himself a stay in rehab, he could have been down for the count.
Instead, he rebounded with the help of Rock Steady Boxing, a twice-weekly class designed to help people with Parkinson’s disease work on the balance, strength and functional movements they need to get through their days.
“Walking without a cane or going up or down stairs, it’s a natural part of life,” says Nelson, a Quarryville resident who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about seven years ago. “I want that.”
Since March 6, Nelson has been attending Rock Steady classes at Willow Valley Communities along with his wife, Janet.
Earlier this month, led by certified instructor Sue Ludwig, Nelson and about a dozen classmates ran through a 90-minute routine complete with boxing, weight training and cardio exercises.
Ludwig opened a Rock Steady affiliate on Oregon Pike just over a year ago. Her grandmother lived with Parkinson’s, and Ludwig wanted to find a way to help others cope with the neurodegenerative disease.
About 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s annually. It commonly causes joint stiffness, tremors, a shuffling or frozen gait, slurred or quiet speech and confusion.
On a recent Thursday, Ludwig’s group starts with seated moves, a way of making connections among group members of differing capabilities and reinforcing why they are gathered together.
Reaching overhead with a squishy ball in hand, they mimic freestyle swim strokes to loosen stiff shoulders. Then they place the same ball underfoot — more of a challenge than it sounds given that people with Parkinson’s often underestimate how high they are lifting their limbs. That can be a major danger with Parkinson’s, and it’s likely what caused Nelson to miss a curb and fall.
Within about 15 minutes, Ludwig moves on to her station-based routine. Here, some participants who struggle to walk or fight against slumping posture are asked to move up and down, use weights to demand more of their shoulder and hip joints and use chairs as props (or not) as they complete moves that stabilize core muscles.
Of course, they’ve come for the boxing lesson, too.
On the hardwood sports court at Willow Valley Communities’ clubhouse, Ludwig has set up two lines of standing bags.
Standing guard is Bob, a rubberized, flesh-colored male torso punching dummy. At the start of each session, Ludwig asks class members to write down what they hate most about living with Parkinson’s. They’ve scrawled across the dummy things so often taken for granted: loss of balance, walking, not driving.
Behind Bob, boxers throw jabs and elbows at shoulder-level reflex bags, which serve as moving targets when they bounce back to starting position.
One line is full of weighted standing bags, which take harder hits and provide a base on which the Parkinson’s team can do toe taps to promote high stepping.
“The lesson I’ve learned is that this is Mr. Parkinson,” says Alice Mihan of Strasburg, delivering a blow to a standing bag with her lime-green boxing glove. Mihan admits she kissed the reflex bag in apology the first time she laid it out. But she now sees the value in a little physical aggression.
“The motivation is critical,” Ludwig says later. “Parkinson’s can make people very apathetic. The fact that they show up here means we’ve got to make it fun and fantastic.”
Big movements that require a full range of motion are important.
But so is seeing someone else struggling with this disease and managing to keep its devastating consequences at bay.
That’s where volunteers come in. Jim John, 65, makes the trip from York County twice a week because he’s a believer in the restorative nature of boxing. Ponytailed and with a massive tattoo on his upper arm, he might not look the part of a Parkinson’s patient. But when he pulls his sleeve up to reveal a tombstone with “R.I.P. Parkinson’s” written on it, it’s clear he belongs.
“If you’d seen me a year ago, if I fell down, I would’ve needed help getting up,” John recalls. “I just had no strength left.”
When he was diagnosed with an early-onset version of the disease at age 50, John says he had 35 of 50 symptoms. Doing yoga and another class specifically designed to spark neural connections in Parkinson’s patients helped him cope for 12 years.
Ludwig’s boxing class is the first to help him regain strength and skills he thought he’d lost.
“The people we have here are struggling,” John says. “But you can see the difference by the time they walk out the door.”
Willow Valley Communities wanted to add the class both for its residents and as a service to the larger community, said wellness manager Pam Schorr. Ludwig only accepts those diagnosed with Parkinson’s and their spouses or caregivers. There are currently eight residents and six community members enrolled, with space for about five more.
Rock Steady has also been available at Lititz recCenter since early 2017, and about 10 participants are currently taking classes.
“We don’t take everyone,” said fitness director Simon Ababou. “A doctor has to clear them to exercise, but for 80 percent, exercise can help.”
Getting back up
Nelson fell a few weeks ago, John recalls. But he quickly returned to class wearing a bandage.
His wife assists his balance by holding a gait belt, and Nelson completes each exercise. He skips modifications where possible, doing side steps while lifting 1-pound weights overhead, even though Ludwig gave the class a seated option.
Janet Nelson, always a fan of physical fitness, counts out reps or does moves alongside her husband when he doesn’t need to lean on her. She sees him making strength gains already, and she says the group gives the couple an emotional boost, much like a Parkinson’s support group they joined.
On the way out for lunch, the Nelsons chat with Dan Lake, 87. In 2013, Lake’s tremor was diagnosed as Parkinson’s. Five years later, his wobbly voice masks his inner strength.
“I want to hit 97,” he says, unraveling hand wraps supporting his wrists. Lake signed up for the class so he can improve balance and avoid a fall. But he’s enjoying his new friendships, too.
At the end of each class, Ludwig brings everyone together for a hands-in cheer. “Look to your left. Look to your right. These are my friends, and this is our fight!”
It’s an important reminder that Parkinson’s doesn’t have to lead to dependency or social isolation.
“Parkinson’s takes so much,” Ludwig says. “Through this, we can give them back a little of what they’ve lost.”