by Sue Ann Rybak
Wyndmoor resident Laura Bryan, 62, is fighting back against Parkinson’s Disease – literally. Bryan, a mother of four adult sons, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s on March 28, 2018.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that mostly affects the dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. The disease causes tremors, walking and balance problems, and muscle rigidity.
Parkinson’s affects nearly one million people in the United States. Approximately 60,000 Americans will be diagnosed with Parkinson disease every year.
“Any Parkinson’s patient can tell you the exact date they got the diagnosis because it’s life changing,” she said.
Bryan was not going to go down without a fight.
“When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I learned about the Rock Steady Boxing,” she said.
Rock Steady Boxing, a nonprofit organization, “gives people with Parkinson’s disease hope by improving their quality of life through non-contact boxing based fitness curriculum.”
The mission of Rock Steady Boxing is to empower people with Parkinson’s disease to fight back. The program, which is the first of its kind in the country, was founded in 2006, by Scott Newman, who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40. Newman’s friend Vince Perez used his experience as a boxer to create a modified non-contact boxing program.
According to the organization’s website, “boxers condition for optimal agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength to defend against and overcome opponents. At RSB, Parkinson’s disease is the opponent. Exercises vary in purpose and form but share one common trait: they are rigorous and intended to empower people with PD to fight back.”
Dr. Joellyn Fox, lead therapist at Penn Therapy & Fitness at Pennsylvania Hospital, talked to the Chestnut Hill Local about the benefits of “intense exercise” in slowing down the progress of Parkinson’s disease.
Fox said while she doesn’t think Rock Steady Boxing is for everyone, recent research has shown that intense cognitive fitness programs such as RSB can improve neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s natural way of adapting to changes caused by illness, injury or the environment. It’s a reeducation of the neurons to modify messages received by the brain.
It’s just one of the reasons she said the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Rehabilitation Center at Penn Therapy & Fitness was the first in Philadelphia to introduce Rock Steady Boxing to the Parkinson community seven years ago. Fox said she has people who are still taking the class today from when she first started it.
“It’s just an establishment of family,” she said. “I think some people like it because it’s like you are fighting back. It makes you feel strong. Perhaps, maybe more than some of the other interventions like yoga. You are hitting something. You are letting out anger. You ARE fighting back.”
She said people who participate in group exercise or exercise at home on their own often tell her they have to take less medication or experience their symptoms with less severity. She said it’s not usual for people “to feel out of control” when they “get devastating news for which there is no cure.”
She said, however, that when you can educate people about this research “that basically states that guided, prescribed exercise can help control your symptoms, you are helping that person regain a sense of control.”
“I think giving that back to a person is really important,” Fox said. “It’s important to restore a sense of self.” She said Rock Steady Boxing does that by empowering people to fight back.
After attending a few Rock Steady Boxing classes in Warrington and Manayunk, Bryan, decided to sign up for a regular boxing class at Balance, her gym in Chestnut Hill. She wanted to attend classes closer to home and didn’t want to have to deal with parking in Manayunk.
“I met my instructor, Aamir Poindexter, a gentle soul who is a phenomenal boxer,” she said. “I let him know about my diagnosis, and he has been a tremendous support for me. With Parkinson’s disease, sometimes you don’t realize your body is not moving in the way your brain is telling it to. Aamir constantly reminds me to make larger motions with my left hand.”
Bryan told Poindexter about Rock Steady Boxing program and offered to pay to have him become certified in the program. She said, he “enthusiastically” agreed to go to training.
Rock Steady Boxing classes are scheduled to begin at Balance, 12 W. Willow Grove Ave., in November. It will hold the first few classes for free, and participants are encouraged to attend with or without their caregiver.
“Amy and Jesse Carolla, owners of Balance, have also been tremendously supportive,” she said. “The Carollas are supporting Rock Steady Boxing by not charging for the gym space. Balance is an incredibly supportive, positive place. I have never belonged to a gym where the owners and instructors are so positive and supportive and really care about you.”
Carolla said Poindexter, the Rock Steady Boxing instructor, has prior experience working with people with Parkinson’s disease. She said Bryan is a very private person and knows a lot of people are nervous about telling people about their diagnosis.
“Laura’s willingness to share her diagnosis to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease and to fund the Rock Steady Boxing Program to create an opportunity for other people to stay well and strong in the community is something I think is really remarkable,” she said.
She added that it’s a big deal for her to announce to the world that she has Parkinson’s disease. She added that Bryan is the type of person who “if she knew she could help other people, she would do it in a second.”
“After Laura did her research, I think she realized that Rock Steady Boxing is an important piece of the puzzle and wanted to do something to help other people feel better and stronger,” Carolla said. “A lot of people are nervous to walk into a gym, yet alone try a boxing class. That can be an intimidating thing. What’s so nice about Balance is that it’s so community oriented. Everybody’s 100% effort is 100% no matter where they are in life. It’s important that you feel comfortable. So, you can work on making you better.”
She said that an important part of wellness at Balance that is often overlooked at other gyms is simply being able to know each other’s names and have a conversation. She added classes like Rock Steady Boxing may push people a little out of their comfort zone and make them feel stronger and in more control.
Bryan said people who are newly diagnosed with Parkinson disease “go through a difficult time, to say the least.”
“The earlier you can get involved in an exercise program specific to Parkinson’s the better off you will be,” she said.
Bryan said she understands why many people do not want to share their diagnosis, but “we need a community.”
“Rock Steady Boxing can offer that sense of community,” she said.