By Sallie James
Carol Myer was never much for exercise, but now the petite blonde boxes three times a week, lifts weights, does yoga and walks.
She hasn’t become a health nut. She’s fighting for her life.
Two years ago, the Highland Beach snowbird was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable, progressive neuro-logical disorder characterized by tremors, limb rigidity and gait and balance loss.
Twenty years ago, the diagnosis was grim.
But not today.
Best known as the disease of Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox, Parkinson’s can be slowed by vigorous exercise, doctors have theorized. So, Parkinson’s patients everywhere are packing a punch.
“I’m not giving in to this disease,” said Myer, who participates regularly in the “Rock Steady” Parkinson’s boxing program at Beyond Fitness in Delray Beach. “You can’t turn back time, but you can hold off what is yet to come.”
Programs such as Rock Steady are giving Parkinson’s patients hope by improving their quality of life through a boxing-based fitness curriculum.
According to the national Parkinson’s Foundation, approximately 1 million people in the United States and 10 million worldwide have Parkinson’s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates complications from Parkinson’s as the No. 14 cause of death in the U.S.
“We don’t have clinical evidence that [exercise] is associated with a slower progression, but there is a lot of evidence from studies that people have improvements of symptoms,” said Corneliu Luca, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Miami and director of the school’s brain stimulation program. “We think vigorous exercise is much better than something that is slow. Twenty years ago, people were not aware of the beneficial effect of exercise” for people with Parkinson’s.
According to the Rock Steady website, Parkinson’s patients lose physical skills that are best improved by boxing workouts. And boxing is one of the most physically demanding sports, the website states.
Inside Beyond Fitness, the finger-snapping beat of the song Macarena is punctuated by the “thump, thump, thump” of gloved fists as people in the gym connect with leather bags. A Rock Steady class is about to start, as a group of mostly older adults sidles into the brightly lit space. They place their gear bags on a bench and head for a row of speed bags.
“The way I see it, I struggle with some things every day, but I am a lot more ahead than I would be if I wasn’t doing Rock Steady and other exercise,” said Pompano Beach resident Jim Emmerich, 64, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2014. “You have got to have a positive outlook. You can’t feel sorry for yourself.”
Colleen Sturgess, owner of Beyond Fitness in Delray Beach, offers encouragement at the end of a Rock Steady class (above) and urges on Jim Emmerich (below), who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2014. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Emmerich combines workouts at different gyms with exercises at home to keep moving. It’s working. The 6-foot retiree’s trim, fit physique and spry movements are tributes to his hard work.
“I can ride the exercise bike and lift weights for 45 minutes. That is medicine. The whole idea is yeah, I got PD, so what?” he said. “I am lifting weights, boxing, lifting heavy bags. The residual effect of all this lingers 24 to 48 hours.”
Whack! The black, column-shaped boxing bag shook and twirled as Emmerich laid into it with a boxing glove. Whack! The bag swung and wobbled as he landed another punch. Smack! A nearby boxer pummeled another bag with the same focused fury.
“Fighting back is what the program is about,” said Colleen Sturgess, who owns Beyond Fitness and teaches the Rock Steady program. “I like this program because it gives people hope. If someone is having a down day or their medication might be off, everyone supports them and encourages them to do their best. They get to be their friends.”
Sturgess holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and health promotion. She got certified to teach Rock Steady in Indianapolis and hasn’t looked back.
During class, she includes memory exercises, balance exercises, stretching and small talk. Because the disease can cause some patients’ voices to soften, Sturgess occasionally has her students shout. It can also affect memory, so sometimes they count in a foreign language.
At the end of class, they do a cheer of solidarity, putting their hands in a circle, one on top of the other, and shout, “Rock Steady!”
“We’re a family,” Sturgess explained.
Delray Beach resident Richard Levine, 65, has been battling Parkinson’s for eight years. The working neuroradiologist is a regular at Beyond Fitness but he goes for more than just exercise.
“It’s a brotherhood and sisterhood. To have a roomful of people with Parkinson’s disease is good for me,” Levine said. “You make friends. It’s very nice to have a bunch of people walk into the room and say, ‘It’s good to see you.’”
Personal trainer and physical therapist Craig Marks trains Parkinson’s patients at his gym — the Parkinson’s Fitness Center of South Florida — and thinks the future is bright for those who once had little hope. His father — who died in 2005 — was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1994. Marks learned then how intense exercise could work magic and worked out vigorously with his dad to help make his life better.
Today, he applies those same principles to others with Parkinson’s disease.
“Movement is key. Does it work and help everybody with Parkinson’s? No. But it’s about 72 percent improvement with the people who come in on a regular basis and follow up with their exercises at home,” said Marks, whose gym is at 12565 Orange Drive in Davie.
Emmerich works out regularly with Marks. Together they do squats, dead lifts, lunges, step-ups, kickboxing and heavy bags.
“Craig put a picture of me up on Facebook and the caption was, ‘Jim says F-U to Parkinson’s,’” Emmerich chuckled. “I don’t have Parkinson’s. That’s my attitude.”
He admits he fell apart when he was first diagnosed. Then he found out about the value of intense exercise and began healing himself.
“I said, ‘Is this a death sentence for me?’ [My doctor] said Parkinson’s doesn’t kill, but there’s no cure,” Emmerich recalled. “Parkinson’s is all about the chemistry in the brain. There is not a good balance of dopamine being released; exercise can generate that dopamine.”
That’s where boxing came in.
But treating Parkinson’s also involves medication, which can be tricky to get right. Too much causes severe shaking. It’s trial and error to get the right balance, Emmerich said.
Angela Wensley, 70, of Delray Beach, has been battling the disease since 2007 and is fierce in her unwillingness to let it own her. She calls the right mix of meds and exercise the “Goldilocks zone.”
She relies on a movement disorder specialist to adjust her medications periodically, so she can get on with her life. And then of course she exercises. As much as she can.
“Ten years ago, people went from mild to severe in a decade, and that is the way it was until about 2010-2012 when people got the exercise craze,” Wensley said. “I had gotten on to this in 2007 and found I was able to slow the progression. Now the floodgates have opened and people with Parkinson’s disease are exercising like crazy.”
Wensley shares her journey with others in a Parkinson’s e-newsletter she writes.
Whack! Wensley’s punching bag spun and twirled. Sweat glistened on her skin.
“I am going to enjoy my life as long as I can. I know eventually it’s going to get me,” she said wryly.
Wensley attends Rock Steady in Delray Beach as much for the exercise as the moral support. She always leaves with a smile.
“We love each other. We understand each other. We have bonded with each other. It’s better than a support group because we are all in it together,” said Wensley, a retired materials engineer. “It’s like being part of a team, but a team we are really invested in. We are fighting for our lives and we are winning.”
Myer agreed wholeheartedly.
“I know people are really frightened of this, but I don’t look at it that way,” Myer said. “You can run away from a bad marriage, but Parkinson’s disease you have to face. And I don’t think you necessarily have to face it with fear, but rather the desire to do whatever it takes.”
She added, “I do know you have to live in the here and now. So it takes me a little longer to get out of the car — so what? I can still wear high heels and go dancing. I hope other people can look at it and say, ‘I can deal with that.’ ”
For information about the Rock Steady program or to find a class, go to www.rocksteadyboxing.org
For information about the Parkinson’s Fitness Center of South Florida, visit www.parkinsonsfitnesscenter.com.