Three days a week, you can hear the thumping of leather, the clackity-clack of speed bags being punched and the shouts of aggression generated by physical exhaustion coming from a corner of the Providence Wellness Center (PWC).
It isn’t a boxing club training the next Golden Gloves boxer or heavyweight champion of the world, though – it’s the work of a number of local residents fighting an opponent much tougher than Ali, Holyfield or Tyson.
Every year, 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative movement disorder which can cause deterioration of motor skills, balance, speech and sensory function.
Studies have shown that a rigorous exercise training program can help slow the progression of the disease, which has no cure. It is that notion that has brought Rock Steady Boxing to the Wayne-based fitness center, and several local residents who are battling the disease can be found working out three days a week in the new program.
Heidi Keller, director at Providence Wellness Center, said the Rock Steady Boxing training program was brought to her attention by Randy Pederson, a local resident who attended a program that was being offered in Elkhorn and liked what he saw enough that he thought it should be offered here in Wayne.
“Randy brought it to the attention of myself and Jim Frank (Providence Medical Center CEO),” Keller said. “He had researched it as a possible treatment and took a class in Omaha and knew it was something he wanted to do. I’ve been training him for seven years and some of that time has been knowing he has Parkinson’s and we’d been working on some stuff, but this is a whole new ball game.”
Pederson paid to send Keller, PWC trainers Justin Dutcher and Clint Belina, and Providence Physical Therapy therapist Michelle Albers to Indinapolis, Ind., where Rock Steady Boxing got its start a little more than 10 years ago when Scott Newman, a Marion County prosecutor, was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40 and had a friend who was a boxing trainer design an intense, high-energy workout that improved his quality of life dramatically. He started the Rock Steady Boxing program, which is now offered to almost 20,000 people in 395 programs around the world, including the one at Providence Wellness Center.
“My son saw something about it and told me to look it up, and I found a location at a senior center in Elkhorn and was impressed with the camaraderie and how the other people there felt it had helped them,” Pederson said. “I knew of some other people around here with Parkinson’s, and I thought if we could help them out, then that’s what it’s all about.”
Keller said the hour-long classes are held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at PWC, and are designed as high-intensity workouts that are not for the weak of constitution.
“You wouldn’t think they would be that hard because these are Parkinson’s patients and you want to be careful, but this is a totally different ball game,” she said. “We treat them like athletes. It’s a boxing-style workout with a lot of interval training and high-intensity training.”
After 10-15 minutes of stretching, the participants move from station to station, doing everything from jumping rope to punching heavy bags or one of the three speed bags set up in a small room on the southwest corner of the facility. They do two 90-second sets with a corresponding 30-second interval exercise in between, then rest for 60 seconds before moving on to the next station.
“It’s non-contact, but we’ll have them hitting punching mitts and sometimes Justin or Clint will put on a body suit and they’ll hit them,” Keller said. “we also work on rolling and crawling on the floor so they comfortable with being on the floor if they should fall. We do a little bit of everything.”
Seven Parkinson’s patients have already signed up for the training – which happens three days a week – including Pedersen, who says the symptoms he experiences are not near as severe after he does a workout.
“I just feel so much better when I get done that I want to go out and hit somebody,” he said, laughing. “I also have some equipment in my basement that I do some work on, but it’s not near as intense as the training here.”
Former Wayne resident Tim Pickinpaugh makes the drive from South Sioux City three times a week to take part in the program, and he said his wife has noticed the changes in his symptoms as well.
“I boxed for two years when I was in high school, so some of that comes back real easy,” he said. “But I feel more agile and feel like I can do more. I don’t have very good balance when I stand in one place, but after doing this I feel like my balance is better and I don’t shuffle my feet or walk as rigid as I used to.”
Keller said the Rock Steady Boxing program offered at PWC is one of only four offered in the state of Nebraska and the only one outside of the Omaha-Lincoln metro area. It is also the only one offered at a place that is connected to a therapy center, and she works with Providence Physical Therapy in helping to bring Parkinson’s patients into the program.
“What’s unique is we’re part of a hospital and have a therapy department and have a therapist on staff,” she said. “We have personal trainers who know the fitness side, and of our 700 members, over half are senior members and a number have symptoms similar to Parkinson’s.”
The Rock Steady Boxing program is offered to those who are dealing with Parkinson’s, and the trainers make sure the participants get a good workout in.
“It’s a Parkinson’s-specific workout, and by pushing them beyond their comfort zone and making them do things most of us don’t make ourselves do, that’s when they see the symptoms lessen,” Keller said. “Maybe the symptoms start later in the day like Randy experiences. We’re already seeing those changes with them and that’s really cool and we’re honored to be a part of it.”
Keller said she has seen a change in those who have been part of the program since its start about a month ago.
“They are a pretty close-knit group because they have a lot of similar symptoms, and they’ve already made an impact on us,” she said. “The energy that’s going on with this group and the camaraderie and how they pick each other up is inspiring. They’ve opened up and their confidence is amazing.”
Both Pickinpaugh and Pederson praised the program in helping them deal with the disease.
“It’s a commitment (to drive from South Sioux City) but it’s been working well for me,” Pickinpaugh said. “My wife sees it and she’s happy to see that it’s helped, and it’s one of those things where you work as hard as you want to, but if you want it to work you have to work hard, and I feel like it’s helped.”
“I look forward to coming here,” Pederson added. “It’s in the middle of the day and it’s not the most convenient time for me, but if you want to get better you have to work at it and it’s something I have to work on to battle what’s wrong with me. I admire the other people who are working on this. It’s exciting to see them working hard and enjoying it, and the commitment by the Providence board and the Wellness Center is making this work.”
For more information about PWC’s Rock Steady Boxing program, call Keller at (402) 375-7927.