The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates there are more than 1 million people in the United States with the disease. For a group of seniors on Daniel Island, the fight has led them to put on gloves and jump in the ring, so to speak.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that affects movement. Symptoms include tremors, rigidity, and stiffness, slowness of movement, and poor balance. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the symptoms of Parkinson’s begin gradually and become worse over time. As the disease progresses, daily tasks can become extremely difficult. Research has found that exercise can improve the quality of life of people battling the disease.
CrossFit Discovery Daniel Island offers an exercise and boxing class tailored to meet the needs of people fighting Parkinson’s disease. The Rock Steady Boxing class enables people with Parkinson’s to hit back against their disease with a boxing-style fitness program.
The concept for Rock Steady Boxing was developed in 2006 by Scott Newman and Vince Perez in Indiana. Newman was diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s at the age of 40. Perez used his experience as a Golden Gloves boxer and designed a program to help knock out and alleviate some of the symptoms of the disease. Realizing this program could be replicated to help others, they founded Rock Steady Boxing, which now is an international program offered around the world.
Owner and head coach Robert VanNewkirk of CrossFit Discovery Daniel Island brought the program to his gym last summer. He discovered a friend’s mother, Linda McDonald, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s four years ago when she was living in St. Louis. VanNewkirk was inspired to do something to help. McDonald became the catalyst for the program on Daniel Island. Originally, McDonald was taking the boxing class at another location.
“My son, Kevin, works out with Robert and started talking to him about my situation. He got Robert interested in the class,” explained McDonald.
VanNewkirk took a course and became certified to teach the specialized boxing class.
“Rock Steady Boxing has an educational program to teach coaches and trainers how to work with people with Parkinson’s. It’s very rigorous. They help you understand the disease,” he said.
VanNewkirk says he has been committed to making Daniel Island the “fittest, happiest town in America” since opening the gym in 2009. It’s that passion for helping people that fueled his desire to offer Rock Steady Boxing classes, which aim to improve the quality of life for those with Parkinson’s.
“The sooner you start the better. Although it doesn’t necessarily slow the progression of the disease, it slows the symptoms,” he said.
Since starting in May 2019, the Daniel Island class has grown to 11 students. The boxers are a determined group, all with the common desire to improve their health.
Bob Arnold has been taking the class since its inception and says it helps with managing both the mental and physical aspects of the disease.
“It’s made me more cognizant of what I need to do to stay ahead of Parkinson’s,” he said. “We are all in this together. We all have a common goal. We know we can’t make it go away, but we can learn to deal with it.”
McDonald has seen her fellow students improve after only a few classes.
“One of the gentlemen in our class was very withdrawn and didn’t really speak,” she said. “Now he carries on conversations with us, he is really blossoming.”
McDonald says the Rock Steady Boxing class is a great way to stay active.
“First of all, you have to move when you have Parkinson’s. If you don’t move you’re going to be literally frozen in place. It’s a movement disorder,” said the 80 year old, who is highly motivated and agile, putting people half her age to shame with her impressive boxing abilities.
Jane Zalkin was a little intimidated at first by McDonald’s boxing skills but soon embraced the class wholeheartedly. Zalkin has seen a dramatic change in her symptoms after starting the class last year.
“I have to say the best that I feel, period, is after I leave here,” she said. “For whatever reason, I’m hot and sweaty, but I feel good. I guess the endorphins are working.”
Zalkin also enjoys the class camaraderie. “It’s a real family atmosphere. We are a like group of souls. Although everyone is at a different place, we all know where we come from. That common denominator is what makes a difference for all of us.”
Before closing their building last week because of COVID-19, CrossFit Discovery adjusted its safety protocol to make sure everyone remained healthy. The open-air gym was always vigilant, but added extra precautions to avoid spreading the virus. All participants washed their hands and cleaned
equipment before starting a workout. They all practiced social distancing, but continued to show support.
“We don’t know that the virus is here but we assume that it is, so I’ve asked everyone to come up with their own non-touching fist bump because we are big on encouragement. If it’s a namaste, hang loose, or whatever, it gives people the same encouragement without putting your hands on them,” VanNewkirk said.
Last week, to help “flatten the curve,” CrossFit Discovery Daniel Island decided to close for a few weeks, like so many gyms in the area and across the country. The gym is offering virtual classes during the closure and is loaning out equipment for members to use at home. VanNewkirk believes a healthy body has a more robust immune system and is better equipped to handle disease.
To find out more about Rock Steady Boxing and other fitness programs offered at CrossFit Discovery Daniel Island, check out their social media pages on Facebook and Instagram or go to crossfitdiscovery.com.