In 2015, Clinton resident Steve Burr tuned in to the CBS program “Sunday Morning” when he saw a segment on the benefits of boxing exercises for people with Parkinson’s Disease.
Diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease a few months earlier, it hit home. Burr, 73, was told picking up regular exercise quickly could slow deteriorating health, so he went looking for nearby classes.
What he found took him by surprise: classes were starting down the street at Solid Stone Boxing in Clinton.
He’s never looked back, and his symptoms have stagnated.
“It’s a progressively degenerative disease, so if you can do something like exercise to maybe not arrest the decline in your capabilities, at least you can slow it down,” Burr said.
“Of course, the sooner you start doing that the better. I got really lucky with the timing, and I can tell you there’s definitely been an improvement.”
Solid Stone Boxing, a gym at Ken’s Korner, has been running twice-weekly boxing classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease for about two years. On any given Monday and Wednesday morning from 9:30-10:30 a.m., the sound of boxing gloves pummeling bags and punching mitts echoes throughout the gym.
The boxers come as they may — some wear gym clothes and others come in their everyday clothes — but once they put on their gloves, they’re in it together in the fight against Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerating condition affecting approximately 600,000 Americans that makes it difficult to walk, balance, talk and move in general. The disease occurs when the brain cells that control body movements start to die off. The symptoms progressively get worse over time.
Experts don’t know the cause, and there isn’t a cure today. Despite all this, some choose to fight rather than let their health deteriorate.
The class is a collaboration between gym owner Dakota Stone and physical therapist Sue Taves. Stone, who won a light middleweight national championship in 2011, heard about the benefits of boxing exercises for people with Parkinson’s when a gym in Indiana pioneered the program.
Shortly after, those on South Whidbey affected by the disease were asking if she would consider starting a similar program. It’s said intensive exercise increases neuroplasicity, or keeps brain cells healthy. This can slow physical deterioration, and, in some cases, improve physical health.
“I didn’t know enough about the physical therapy aspect, but it’s something I was interested in doing for the community,” Stone said. “That’s where Sue comes in.”
Taves now works alongside Stone and her trainers in the gym, despite initially being unfamiliar with boxing. She guides the boxers through stretches and exercises that each cover a symptom: stretching for their stiffness, footwork for balance, punching to steady their tremors and sparring to improve hand-eye coordination.
The instructors even have them talk and shout throughout the session with the aim of overcoming their “soft voice syndrome.”
“Parkinson’s patients start to get quieter and quieter when they talk, and they struggle to move in certain directions,” Stone said. “So Sue has them talk during the session and move forward, backwards and side to side throughout.”
The results can be staggering for some, although it’s not a magic wand for all. According to Stone, one of the original boxers, Ed Wootten, was in bad shape before the classes began. He was falling at home and struggling with everyday activities.
Stone said Wooten’s wife wasn’t sure if he’d make it to the end of the year. But, once he put on those gloves, his health has improved remarkably. His doctors reports improvement in multiple categories and he can walk with more ease. He hits hard, too.
The benefits go far beyond physical health, according to the boxers themselves. Burr says there’s a sense of togetherness among the boxers and trainers, and they share the feeling they’re all in this fight against Parkinson’s together.
The camaraderie is invaluable to someone dealing with the struggles of the disease, as some become recluse after growing frustrated at their inability to do activities they’ve done their whole lives.
Depression can also set in, which only accelerates the deterioration. It takes a conscious effort to overcome that and choose to fight.
But the emotion isn’t limited to the boxers. According to trainer Lauren Coleman, the gym staff has built a strong bond with the boxers as they’ve watched them take their condition head-on, and, in some cases, reverse the symptoms.
Seeing the boxers step in to the ring with tremors or shuffling feet, only to see them forget about their conditions as soon as they start swinging, strikes an emotional nerve.
The trainers say they look forward to Monday and Wednesday mornings just as much as the boxers do, but after seeing them step into the ring against Parkinson’s, it’s no wonder.
“I’ve heard someone say ‘for an hour, I forgot I had Parkinson’s,’” Coleman said. “When you hear things like that, it makes it all worth it.”