For many people, getting to the gym is something they slip into their schedules because they know being fit is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But for people living with Parkinson’s disease, exercise is vital for maintaining balance, mobility and the activities of daily living many others take for granted.
The boxers at Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) are fighting this disease one jab at a time. The groundbreaking program is designed to improve the quality of life for people battling Parkinson’s, using non-contact, boxing-inspired fitness training. Drills and exercises specifically target the disease’s range of symptoms by focusing on agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, balance, hand-eye co-ordination, footwork and overall strength.
At Rock Steady, the opponent is Parkinson’s disease.
“Parkinson’s is so many things. It’s a neurodegenerative disease that effects everybody and their body differently,” said Melissa Tward, executive director of RSB York Region and a Rock Steady boxing coach. “Everything starts to get small –your steps and your arm movements. What we try to do is create everything big.
“Studies reveal that intense exercise really helps. The beauty of boxing is you let out any frustration on a bag. It’s cathartic. It feels good.”
RSB York Region, which operates its programs in the Schwartz/Reisman Centre, recently marked its first anniversary. To celebrate the completion of participants’ first year, Tward created a book packed with motivation and inspiration written by the boxers.
“I wanted to give them something for their dedication and commitment, so I started collecting class cheers,” she said.
One of the cheers reads, “Rock Steady is our name and boxing is our game. We’re one of a kind with win on our mind. We jab, we hook, we cross and we punch with one aim in mind, and that’s to beat the Parkinson’s into the ground.”
Another states, “North of Highway 7, Melissa did something really bold, starting Rock Steady Boxing has been truly gold. Punching our way to the top, this group will never stop.”
A third affirmation boasts, “We are the Rock Steady Boxing team. We can’t be beat. We got the power to knock Parkinson’s off its feet. Look to your left. Look to your right. These are my friends and this is our fight.”
Parkinson’s disease is on the rise. According to Parkinson Canada, an estimated 100,000 Canadians have Parkinson’s now, but that number is expected to surpass 160,000 by 2031.
The Rock Steady program was founded in 2006 by former Indiana prosecutor Scott Newman, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40. Today, Rock Steady Boxing has exploded internationally, including programs in Israel.
Meanwhile, the RSB York Region program has grown from two classes a week to six, with four different levels, depending on the participant’s Parkinson’s advancement and overall fitness.
Everything is about movement. “I begin with a cardio component to get the heart rate up and to get the body loosened,” said Tward. “We form a circle and ask a question of the day. Boxers say their names and their answers loud to strengthen the vocal chords.
“We work on conditioning and drills. I set the room up into stations – from the obstacle course to sequence work with heavy bags, speed bags and double-ended bags. All of this is mostly to challenge their brains,” explained Tward. The class concludes with a cooldown, a Rock Steady cheer, big smiles and jubilant high fives.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s 10 years ago, Adil, 58, is a regular at Rock Steady. “My fitness level has increased and I am using my memory because of the combination of punches we are given. The group is like a care-and-share. We can talk about where we are on the Parkinson’s journey. Melissa is such a great soul, so positive and always smiling.”
Howard, 71, said the hour-long classes have made a real difference. “Mobility was a problem. I started to find that my arms weren’t swinging. Rock Steady has definitely helped my fitness. What I enjoy most is getting out the aggression.”
Alex, who has been living with Parkinson’s for eight years, said, “I enjoy the exercise and the camaraderie. The time I’m here is about getting fit.”
For more information or to book a consultation, contact Melissa Tward at [email protected] or 416-816-4337.