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One Punch At A Time

Parkinson’s boxers are fighting back against their disease with a new fitness regime that is making a real difference.

By Amelia Blades Steward

Lyn Sutton in her home gym giving a Zoom class to her Parkinson’s Rock Steady Boxing group.

Feeling “rock steady” is not what you would normally hear from a person dealing with Parkinson’s disease. After spending some time exercising in a new program called “Rock Steady Boxing,” Parkinson’s patients on the Mid-Shore are keeping their disease from progressing. They find that they can do the things they enjoy doing every day by practicing non-contact boxing and an intensive exercise routine several times a week.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative movement disorder that can cause deterioration of motor skills, balance, speech, and sensory function. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates there are more than one million people in the United States diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Recent studies, most notably at the Cleveland Clinic, indicate that intense “forced” exercise may be neuro-protective, actually slowing the progression of the disease.

Rock Steady Mid-Shore Boxing classes, serving boxers in all stages of Parkinson’s disease, have grown beyond their original location at Island Athletic Club in Grasonville. The program expanded to Easton to help meet the needs of people who had more advanced Parkinson’s disease. Lyn Sutton of Denton started the program in 2017 at the Island Athletic Club in Grasonville where she has been operating her personal training business 360 Strong. A personal trainer for 24 years, Sutton decided to get her Rock Steady Boxing certification in 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana, after her father was diagnosed with the disease.

“The program spoke to me after my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s because these are people who are functioning normally and then suddenly get this life-changing diagnosis. I was already a fitness trainer and this was a perfect complement to my business. I believe everyone with Parkinson’s deserves to have this program in their community and I wanted to bring it to the Mid-Shore community as well,” comments Sutton.

Rock Steady Boxing was originally

founded in 2006 by a former Marion County (Indiana) Prosecutor, Scott C. Newman, who was diagnosed with early-

onset Parkinson’s disease at age 40, and

his friend Vince Perez, a Golden Gloves boxer who didn’t want his friend to go down without a fight. Perez designed a program that attacks Parkinson’s at its vulnerable neurological point. The two realized that they could replicate the experience for others and founded the organization with its mission to empower people with Parkinson’s disease to “fight back.”

Around the same time that Sutton started Rock Steady Boxing on the Mid-Shore, the Maryland Association for Parkinson Support (MAPS) recognized that none of its programs and activities were available on the Eastern Shore. MAPS, a non-profit organization that seeks to support programs and services that encourage healthy lifestyles for all those affected by Parkinson’s disease, then committed to raising the necessary funds to support an exercise program on the Shore. The group then found Sutton’s Rock Steady Boxing program, and with funding from the Parkinson’s Foundation, the Wells Family Fund, and other donors, MAPS and 360 Strong were able to offer the program free to all participants staring on January 1, 2018.

Within a year, the YMCA of the Chesapeake, 360 Strong, MAPS, and Bayleigh Chase - Acts Retirement Community started a Rock Steady Boxing class at the Easton Family YMCA. Two other coaches, Wendy Palmer and Susan Covey, joined Sutton in offering the Rock Steady Boxing Program in Easton. The program has been offered free of charge to participants for two years.

Covey, a Fitness Director at Bayleigh Chase - Acts Retirement Community, witnessed the commitment and joy of the participants, called “boxers,” when she first observed one of Lyn’s Rock Steady classes. She comments, “It made me hopeful for my sister, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and many others like her who could improve their health through the program. I got my Rock Steady Boxing certification in 2018.”

Rock Steady Boxing is broken out into high and low-intensity classes which are offered at both the Grasonville and Easton locations. Boxing works by moving your body in all planes of motion while continuously changing the routine as you progress through the workout. Dave Heistand of Easton has been participating for over two years in the high-intensity classes at both locations. He joined to maintain his physical endurance after he noticed changes as the disease progressed.

“Exercise is the best medicine for Parkinson’s disease. While the program centers around non-contact boxing and using a boxing bag, it also includes stretching, strength training, cognitive exercises, and cardiovascular exercises. The exercises get our heart rates up and create endorphins that elevate our moods,” comments Heistand.

“But it’s more than that. It’s the socialization and support system that I have gained through the program, and the love, concern, and care of the personal trainers that has made all the difference.”

Heistand’s wife, Eileen, is her husband’s “corner woman” – a term given for the significant other who assists the boxer with keeping up their intensity during the class. She comments, “These coaches do whatever they can to improve the lives of their participants. They exude care for everyone in the class.”

Sutton explains that the classes serve people ages 50 to 91 years of age and that the drive of each boxer is remarkable. She states, “There are so many obstacles just for them to get to class. After being with them for one hour and 15 minutes in class and watching their perseverance, you develop a real love and respect for each participant.”

Both program locations address everyone from the newly diagnosed patients who may have only a few symptoms, as well as those who have a more progressed disease and may be in a wheelchair. Sutton teaches in Grasonville and Sutton, Palmer and Covey teach in Easton, where classes have grown from four boxers to 26 boxers. Since the arrival of COVID-19, the classes are now offered through a Zoom format. The coaches have hopes of resuming in-person classes eventually when the risks of the pandemic have passed.

Sutton adds, “People with the most advanced disease can still participate safely even through Zoom. We put safety first and each class has two instructors so that one instructor can watch boxers while the other is leading the class. Participants also usually have cornermen and corner women nearby to observe and help as well.”

For Ella J. Haythe of Easton, diagnosed three years ago with Parkinson’s disease, says the classes have given her a new outlook on life. She comments, “I thought before I even attended the first class that I would have to come home from class and go to bed. Instead, the program energizes me. After class I can clean the house or go to the grocery store. I am not frightened any more about my diagnosis. I have hope.”

Sutton states that they are seeing more neurologists recommending Rock Steady Boxing classes as soon as someone is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Studies have shown that you “lose it if you don’t use it.”

“The more days our boxers can do the classes, the better they do. The program increases their confidence and gives them a sense of purpose. That is why we have a goal to get Rock Steady Boxing classes in all of YMCA of the Chesapeake’s locations on the Shore,” states Palmer.

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