HealthWorks Fitness Center, an agency of the SHARE Foundation, hosted a community-open Rock Steady Boxing class on April 1 to help raise awareness for Parkinson’s disease.
Offered at HealthWorks since 2018, Rock Steady Boxing is a non-contact program “based on the workout used by boxing pros and suitable for people with Parkinson’s disease,” said Amanda Cooley, public relations manager for the SHARE Foundation.
April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Cooley said the community class was held on April 1 to help raise awareness of the disease, which is characterized by tremors, balance and gait problems and limb stiffness.
“Members of the community were invited to come and participate and see how challenging and fun Rock Steady boxing can be for people with Parkinson’s disease and see how much it benefits them,” Cooley said.
Rhonda Sayers, one of three Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) trainers at HealthWorks, said the program was developed by Indiana’s Scott Newman in 2006 after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 40. The exercises aim to help people with Parkinson’s disease in several areas.
Each workout begins with a 20-30 minute warm-up, where members of the RSB class are invited to HealthWorks’ second-floor gym to prepare for their workout.
“They can use any cardio equipment or walk the track, whatever they want,” Sayers said.
After that comes stretching, one of the most important – and most enjoyable, according to Sayers – parts of RSB classes.
“We want to make sure they’re stretched out from head to toe, and that’s their favorite part because it helps them settle in and it feels good for their muscles,” she said.
Stretching includes what Sayers calls “voice activation,” where participants exercise their throat muscles by chanting, chanting, shouting, and making other fun noises.
“Something a lot of people don’t know about Parkinson’s disease: Your throat muscles are affected by the disease, and you lose your ability to speak, and you also lose your ability to swallow. We don’t want to that they contract that much,” Sayers said. “We activate the voice by singing, counting, singing Rock Steady Boxing — sometimes we even do nursery rhymes and tongue twisters, just to get them talking out loud.”
From there, class members get into a light workout to get started — playing games like frisbee and ball, practicing deep breathing, and otherwise preparing for the main event.
Finally, class members learn all the essentials of boxing training for 30-45 minutes.
“We do sham boxing – shadow boxing, heavy bags, foot work, strength with weights and bodyweight. We do functional Parkinson’s training, walking exercises, (practice ranging) from sitting to standing, balance challenges,” Sayers said. “We also do core work, which includes neck work, core work, sit-ups, planks.”
Sayers said that for the April 1 community class, members of the El Dorado medical community were invited to see what the Rock Steady Boxing program is all about.
“I think people who were able to attend were really surprised at how hard these people are training,” she said. “It was a great success. I think some members of the medical community who were able to attend the hearing were very surprised at how long these patients were able to exercise – their endurance, their strength gave them surprised and their willingness to share their journey with the community.”
Noting that Parkinson’s can be a very isolating disorder — according to the National Institute of Health, 30 to 40 percent of Parkinson’s patients also suffer from depression — Sayers said every class of Rock Steady Boxing ended with a cool down, followed by congratulations to class members for their participation.
“We celebrate by reminding them how proud we are of them and reminding them how proud they should be of themselves,” she said. “It can be a very isolating disease, and so for them to come out and be very public about their disease, we want to keep reminding them that they need to be proud of themselves.”
In the three years Sayers has been a certified Rock Steady Boxing trainer, she said the number one improvement she’s seen in those who take her class is an improvement in their mood.
“The first thing we notice is that their general, general mood — because, you know, when you’ve been given a diagnosis like Parkinson’s, it can be really difficult — their faith is strong, but we see an improvement in their mood first,” she said. “They’re lighter in their step, their faces light up as they cross the parking lot. We find that mentally it helps them, mentally and emotionally.”
She said she also saw improvements in class members’ balance and coordination.
In addition to Sayers, Jimmy Massey and Amy Ulmer are RSB coaches. Sayers said there was also a team of about 12 volunteers who attend RSB classes, rotating so that about four can attend each class.
RSB courses take place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Only people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease can join the class, and HealthWorks can currently accommodate 25 to 30 members, Sayers said.
“In Arkansas, all (COVID) restrictions have been lifted for us as a gym, but we want to be mindful of those who are at higher risk,” she said. “We can accommodate 25-30 people in our largest studio here, and in our gym where we start, on the second floor, there is even more room.”
Part of the reason for hosting the community RSB class, Sayers said, was to help introduce the class to those who may not have heard of it before. She noted that most patients with Parkinson’s disease are people over 50 – and the same is true for members of the RSB class – but statistically it is very likely that some early stage patients will live. in southern Arkansas and could benefit from the program.
“We know there are other younger adults, in different demographics, who are not benefiting from this program yet, who don’t even know it,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to get the medical community working.”
HealthWorks also held its second annual Walk With Us Parkinson’s disease awareness walk at the gym earlier this month.
Sayers said patients with Parkinson’s disease don’t need to be members of HealthWorks to enroll in RSB courses. She noted that some insurance plans will reimburse patients for class fees and that HealthWorks Membership Services will work with potential class members in need of financial assistance.
“If anything ever happened with the HealthWorks program, I think we would find a way to maintain a relationship and continue to work with them. It’s so important and so rewarding,” Sayers said. “It’s such a joy, such a privilege for me and the other two coaches. It’s our favorite part of the week, favorite part of the day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays… It’s a personal reward for all of us.”
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, nearly one million people in the United States live with Parkinson’s disease and approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year. More than 10 million people worldwide have Parkinson’s disease.
For more information on Rock Steady Boxing classes at HealthWorks, visit healthworksfitnesscenter.com/what-we-offer/rock-steady-boxing.html.