Fighting Parkinson’s: Boxing program helps mobility, mindset

October 14, 2017 GMT

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) — While singing the chorus of “When The Saints Go Marching In”, Mary Alice Oliver rhythmically strikes the black Everlast punching bag with a left-right combination, her eyes focused on the target and her arms extending with each blow.

Moments later, Rock Steady Boxing Bowling Green head coach Jill Steffey begins counting down the seconds before her fighters will switch stations. As time elapses, Oliver takes one last swing, and her jab leaves the bag vibrating from the impact.

It’s time for the fighters to move to another exercise, and in the battle they’re fighting, movement is everything.


Rock Steady Boxing is a nationwide nonprofit that seeks to improve the quality of life for those with Parkinson’s disease by providing a venue for exercise through non-contact boxing. As Parkinson’s disease impacts a person’s movement, each exercise is designed to boost coordination, motor skills, balance and speech.

For Oliver and other members of the Bowling Green club, Rock Steady Boxing is also about coming together with others who are fighting Parkinson’s disease for recreation and fellowship.

“It’s such a congenial group. We have so much fun with each other,” Oliver said.

Steffey — who is a full-time public school teacher along with coaching at Rock Steady — launched the Bowling Green chapter a year ago in October of 2016. For her, it was personal. Steffey’s father had been living with Parkinson’s for more than a decade before a back surgery in 2014 made his condition worsen to the point where he had to rely on a wheelchair.

Determined to help her father, Steffey learned about Rock Steady, but there wasn’t a facility in south central Kentucky that offered the program. In the spring of 2015, the YMCA in Hopkinsville started a Rock Steady program and she drove her father to Christian County so he could see what it was all about.

Somewhat unsure of the idea at first, Steffey said her father asked to participate with the other fighters on the first day.

“He absolutely loved it,” she said.

But it was the second trip to Hopkinsville that sealed the deal for Steffey. Once her father began the training regimen that day, she said the instructor told her to take his wheelchair back to the car because he would no longer be needing it.

“So I took the wheelchair to the car, and he hasn’t been in it since” other than the occasional time when it’s easier for him to use it in certain situations, she said.


It’s been a long process, complete with days of training and certification and hours of labor shaping the space behind Live Active at 1249 US 31-W into a true boxing and exercise facility. But Steffey’s dream has created a core group of about 20 fighters along with several volunteers who utilize Rock Steady Boxing Bowling Green.

“Every single one of them (has) improved in some fashion,” Steffey said of the fighters.

While Steffey focuses on the boxing aspect of Rock Steady, assistant coach Maureen McIntyre oversees the portion of the workout where the fighters go to different stages to perform tasks such as lacing shoes, tossing bean bags into a bin and extending their legs in the air while seated. Each activity is tied to a specific way of improving motor skills, muscle function and awareness.

Like Steffey, McIntyre said she has seen first-hand how Rock Steady changes lives for those with Parkinson’s disease.

“They’ll show up in a wheelchair or a walker, and then in a week or two, you see them without it,” she said.

It’s not unusual for people to be skeptical at first, but after they come to the gym the initial time, Steffey said they are usually hooked.

Family members and friends will often accompany the fighters during their workouts, usually performing the same exercises. Kay Dillon said Oliver has been her best friend for 40 years, so when she wanted to give Rock Steady a try as a way to combat her Parkinson’s symptoms, Dillon wanted to be right there with her.

“If she needs me, I’m going to be here,” Dillon said, as she made her way through the exercise stations with Oliver.

Beyond the physical improvements, Steffey said a goal of the organization is to provide support for those dealing with Parkinson’s as well as their friends and family members. A separate part of the nonprofit is the Partners fighting Parkinson’s support group, which will hold its first meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday at the gym.

Though the facility is located in Bowling Green, people have come to train from places like Munfordville and Lewisburg. Steffey said they hope to add more fighters from southcentral Kentucky, as she added anyone with Parkinson’s is invited to come and check out the program and decide if they would like an evaluation and to join Rock Steady.

Classes are held from 5 to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, with groups participating twice weekly. One group is designed for those who are more stricken with the effects of Parkinson’s, while the other group is for those who have more mobility.

Joyce Devore is one of the handful of fighters who have been with Steffey and Rock Steady since the program launched in Bowling Green. Her husband recommended she try it out, and she said the upbeat spirit and energy from the program have been a real boost for her. She said beyond improving her mindset, Rock Steady has also helped her physically, including with her balance.

“I think anybody should owe it to themselves to try it,” Devore said.


Information from: Glasgow Daily Times,