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Knocking out Parkinson’s

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease? Yes, it’s true. A training program directed by Rock Steady Boxing-Albuquerque is helping men and women with Parkinson’s disease regain their strength, balance, coordination and confidence.

At Blackman’s Martial Arts Academy in Northeast Albuquerque, men and women of all ages and with varying stages of Parkinson’s labor through a 60-minute session of exercises three times a week.

After carefully wrapping their hands and wrists and donning boxing gloves, they do a series of warm-up stretches, then work through 6 to 9 exercise stations doing ring work, pulling heavy bags, jumping rope, walking, doing deep squats, then jogging, running over ever-higher padded barriers, building muscle strength and flexibility.

Unlike traditional boxing classes, there are no direct punches, except into punching bags and pads, or target mitts. Before being accepted into the classes, each “fighter” undergoes a thorough assessment of balance, fitness and strength.

Each individual is then assigned to one of four levels of fitness. Those with more advanced disease always have a partner, either a spouse or volunteer, to help them through the stations.

The founder, coach and director of Albuquerque Rock Steady Boxing is former Marine and real estate developer Patrick A. Strosnider, who also holds a black belt in Taekwondo Kenpo Karate.

Strosnider said he got the idea for the boxing classes in 2015 after hearing a CBS News report by Leslie Stahl about the original Rock Steady Boxing program in Indianapolis. It’s also personal: His father has Parkinson’s.

His father has not yet participated in the program. Strosnider says, “He’s very independent, a do-it-yourself John Wayne-type personality.”

This reticence is not unusual because tremors, and loss of balance and strength are often embarrassing for patients, forcing them to withdraw from friends and social settings.

At a recent New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition Conference, Strosnider told the audience that “the boxing training routine forces the body and mind to communicate and to react, increasing strength, agility, and flexibility.”

This is the only program of its kind in New Mexico, and Strosnider took special training at the Indianapolis Rock Steady program to learn about challenges Parkinson’s patients would face in the gym. The first class began early in June.

Parkinson’s disease causes progressive deterioration of the neurologic system and is characterized by tremors, rigid posture and gradual slowing of movement. These symptoms directly affect balance, mobility and, very importantly, quality of life. Patients begin to withdraw from their ordinary activities, and can become more and more reclusive, according to the New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition and the National Institutes of Health.

Medication and, more recently, deep brain stimulation, or DBS, have been used to treat the tremors, rigidity and increasing stiffness of the disease. DBS involves a surgical procedure in which a battery-operated medical device, or neurostimulant, is inserted into the brain. The neurostimulant, which is much like a heart pacemaker and about the size of a small stopwatch, delivers electrical impulses to areas of the brain that control movement.

Several of the Rock Steady fighters have undergone DBS, with good results, Strosnider said.

Art Garcia and Doreen Rosenberg build strength and coordination by tossing heavy weighted balls back and forth. (Mary Kay Stein/For The Journal)

Art Garcia and Doreen Rosenberg build strength and coordination by tossing heavy weighted balls back and forth. (Mary Kay Stein/For The Journal)

The steadily increasing tremors are probably the best known part of the disease. However, others are less well known, for example, the effects on the voice. As one of the younger Rock Steady program “fighters,” pharmacist Doreen Rosenberg said, Parkinson’s can cause a gradual weakening of the vocal cords, so the person becomes ever more soft-spoken. Ironically, the brain sends signals that one is shouting when, in fact, their voice is at a normal level.

To counteract this, during class, one of the “stations” uses a medicine ball that fighters pick up and drop while shouting a word like “MONDAY!” or “CHRISTMAS!” The exercise strengthens the vocal cords and also helps “open” the chest.

For Rosenberg, the disease came early.

Her doctor told her that the disease might have been speeded up at least 10 years by the stress of caring for her late husband for 4 years, running a 45-acre farm in the Manzano Mountains and working full time as a pharmacist. She was advised to exercise and see a speech therapist because of her young age. She still works 24 hours a week and her schedule allows her to train three days a week.

“It’s important to be here,” she says, and “although it can be hard and you get tired, you can’t let it beat you.” She added, “Parkinson’s disease brings everything inward, your muscles contract and your voice is affected; with boxing, you reach out, opening your chest, and strengthening and opening your arms.”

She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 53 and found Strosnider’s boxing program through a Parkinson’s advocacy program. She had already been working with a personal trainer and speech therapist when she learned that the Rock Steady program was about to start. She signed up for the first class and drives 40 minutes each way three times a week to participate. She is also active in a support group and regularly speaks to groups about the disease.

One particularly powerful component of the program is the friendship and camaraderie among the fighters and coach. Since one of the parts of the disease is isolation, having this second “family” of fellow Parkinson’s patients definitely adds to the fighters’ quality of life. The Rock Steady fighters look out for one another and worry when someone doesn’t show up or even is late for a class. The fighters encourage each other with teasing and a helpful hand whenever needed.

Retired from the U.S. Army and a career that took him all over the world, former hospital administrator Rob Maruca adds, “When someone isn’t here, we worry.”

Terry Levine, an outgoing fighter with a long career in real estate, says that, prior to joining the Rock Steady Boxing group, he had never seen so many people with Parkinson’s in one place. He told himself, “I have Parkinson’s. I still have Parkinson’s and I am not going to die.”