In local gym, Rock Steady boxers battle Parkinson’s

September 4, 2016 GMT

The hallway in the basement at Lutheran Life Villages on South Anthony Boulevard is lined with photographs of some of history’s greatest boxers.

There’s a picture of Floyd Patterson being congratulated by his corner men while, a couple of feet away, another boxer lies flat on his back.

One photo shows Joe Louis landing a crushing blow to the side of another boxer’s head. Also on the wall are photos of Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and others, along with posters from famous boxing movies – “Rocky,” “Cinderella Man,” “Raging Bull” and so on.

Off the hallway, in a long, stark room with cement walls, is a gym, fully equipped with speed bags, heavy bags, jump ropes, weights and, oddly enough, a large tractor tire filled with exercise balls.

When fighters show up at the gym, rock music, mostly from the 1970s, blares, and Kaitlin Logan, a 20-something who runs the place, can be found pacing back and forth yelling instructions to the people taking part in something called Rock Steady Boxing.

The participants, though, aren’t a bunch of sweaty, tough looking brutes. Most are in their 60s, some as old as their 90s; some are women, and they all have one thing in common: They have Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s is a disease of the central nervous system in which nerve cells that produce dopamine, which helps send signals to muscles, become damaged. People with Parkinson’s move slowly, lose coordination, have balance problems and develop tremors, usually in the hands.

Ten years ago, former Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman, who has Parkinson’s, discovered that undergoing boxing training actually relieved his tremors. One day he held out his hands and declared to a friend that he was “rock steady.”

Rock Steady Boxing was born.

Then, three years ago, the president of the Lutheran Life Villages Foundation, Tim Imler, who has Parkinson’s, heard about the idea of boxing to relieve symptoms. At first, he thought it was crazy, that it was just a gimmick.

But after taking part in a program in Indianapolis, he opened his own franchise operation in Fort Wayne, where about 65 people take part in classes.

One of those is Steve Schultheis. He was once quite active. He rode a bike up to 100 miles a day. But one day, about 13 years ago, he developed a mild tremor in one of his hands. He thought nothing of it, he said, but it was Parkinson’s, and it progressed through the years.

Today Schultheis can’t write – he’s also lost the ability to smell. He’s been involved in Rock Steady for a while now, and the exercise makes him feel better, he said, though the disease still progresses.

The whole notion of trying to fight your way through Parkinson’s is a new concept. When he first developed the disease, Schultheis said, nobody knew that exercise could make a difference.

Even today, Logan says, a lot of neurologists are unaware of the benefits of exercise and have never heard of programs like Rock Steady Boxing. That may be because there have been no studies to document whether exercise does help.

For that reason, Logan says, insurance doesn’t cover participation in the program, so Rock Steady charges only $12 per 90-minute class or $60 a month to take an unlimited number of classes.

A few universities are supposed to be planning some studies, Logan said, but for her part, she’s seen the results.

“The progress I’ve seen is amazing,” Logan said.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.