Boxing out Parkinson’s

The patter and thump of boxing gloves hitting targets reverberated off the walls of the Social of Greenwood.

Eight boxers stood poised at stations around the agency’s gym, taking turns throwing jabs, hooks and uppercuts. They worked on their footwork and balance as they threw each punch, and thumped speed bags, heavy pads and training mitts held by their coach.

In each of the participants, Parkinson’s disease had stolen some of their mobility, their coordination and their strength. But through the Rock Steady Boxing program, they were holding the illness at bay one punch at a time.

For the past three years, the Social of Greenwood has been offering Rock Steady Boxing. What started as a single class with five people in it has grown to include eight different sessions that cater to more than 70 boxers.

As the program has grown, so has the need to add more equipment, trainers and alternate locations. Fundraising is ongoing, and the goal is to be able to accommodate 200 people, said Steve Spencer, board president for the Social of Greenwood.

“We want as many people as possible taking part. As soon as they are diagnosed, the sooner they get into a program, the more then can delay the onset,” he said. “We always tell people, don’t die of Parkinson’s, do something.”

Excitement and adrenaline radiated from the boxers as they threw a quick sequence of punches — jab, cross, uppercut — then moved to the next target.

Coach Christa Martin pushed the boxers, imploring them to move quickly and keep shuffling. At the end of the session, everyone was breathing heavy and sweating, with smiles on their faces.

“If you walk out of here with a wet T-shirt, you know it was a good workout,” Spencer said.

Mike Conley of Greenwood has been coming to the Rock Steady program for nearly two years. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease while living in Kansas, and after moving back to Indiana, he found information about it online. His doctor recommended it, and he decided to try it.

Almost immediately, he saw the benefits.

“It was great,” he said. “It helps with balance, movement, strength. I’m quicker.”


Rock Steady Boxing is a non-contact fitness class that incorporates the punching and footwork of boxing training with exercises to improve balance, core strength and agility. Though more than 400 affiliates offer the program around the world, it was founded in Indianapolis in 2006 by Scott Newman, the former Marion County prosecutor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 39.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative and relentless neurological disease, in which the brain produces increasingly less of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for allowing the brain to communicate to the muscles throughout the body, so as less is present, it becomes more difficult to move normally.

“In the brain, 80 percent of dopamine production is lost,” Spencer said. “That’s like a battery at 20 percent power. It’s the juice that connects the synapses to the muscles. It’s why they have trouble speaking, why their gait is unsteady.”

Medical studies have found that intense exercise, particularly the kind the forces people out of their comfort zones, can slow the progression of the disease. Boxing is one of the most intense forms of training there is, and with a coach pushing participants on, it has proven to be effective against Parkinson’s, Spencer said.

When Richard Tandy first started coming to the classes, he struggled with stiffness throughout his body. His neck muscles were rigid, so much so that when he lay on his back, his head wouldn’t touch the floor.

The Greenwood resident couldn’t keep his right hand and arm from curling up toward his abdomen.

“When I came in here, my hand was pulled up into my body — it wouldn’t swing. Now, I can swing it, not as free as my left, but I’m making progress,” he said. “I always tell people if you have this, tell your doctor to have you come in and try this, because it does help.”

In order to take part in the class, participants must have a signed doctor’s release. They also must meet with one of the coaches for a 30-minute assessment to better understand where they are in the progression of their disease.

Gary Schooley of Greenwood just started coming to Rock Steady Boxing in August. He suffered from a series of illnesses last year, and while rehabilitating, his lips started trembling.

Doctors thought it was a side-effect from the medication, but tests revealed that it was Parkinson’s disease. His neurologist recommended the boxing program, and he’s been coming two or three times a week ever since.

“It’s done wonders for me. It’s a good workout, and it keeps you loose,” he said.


Different sessions cater to varied levels of ability. Some of the participants are early in their diagnosis, and can still stand, shuffle, punch and jab on their own.

In others, the disease is more advanced. They have to have spotters to stabilize them and prevent falls. But even in those cases, the activity helps them move easier.

After warming up with stretching, deep breathing and other exercises, they spend about 15 minutes stabilizing the core muscles of their abdomen. They do sit-ups, pausing at the top of each one to punch their partner’s hands.

But a majority of the workout is focused on boxing, strength training and functional moves. Participants pull weighted tires around the gym floor, hold tires above their heads and flip heavy sandbags over.

Jim West has been coming to the Social of Greenwood for the program for years. His balance is a lot better, his writing is more smooth and he hasn’t developed the tremors that often come with the disease.

His older brother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and he watched as inactivity seemed to exasperate the disease. When he was diagnosed, he resolved not to let the same thing happen to him.

“I saw what he was struggling with, and it gave me an incentive to come,” he said.

The training also requires participants to use different skills together, punching while sliding their feet and throwing jabs in a multitude of locations.

“Doing that makes them think differently. We want the brain to change, so we mix it up on the things they need to do,” Spencer said.

Spencer himself went through training to become a coach, joining Martin, Kristi Moore and Alexis Nelson as the Social of Greenwood’s four class leaders. Volunteer “corner” men and women also assist during the sessions.


With a good foundation in place, the Social of Greenwood hopes to more than double the number of people who can enroll in the classes, Spencer said. Officials have already lined up affiliate locations at Stones Crossing Health Pavilion and the Gathering Place in Greenwood, to provide more space than is currently available at their facility.

But doing so requires more heavy bags, sparring dummies and other equipment, Spencer said. Mats and safety equipment are also needed.

That makes their fundraising efforts so vital, Spencer said.

“All of this stuff comes with a cost, plus installation,” he said. “We’re glad to have the space, but we need to have the equipment as well.”

The Social of Greenwood is a nonprofit organization, and it relies on donations and grants to support its operations. The agency recently was named the recipient of a $9,000 grant from the Johnson County Community Foundation, and officials have applied for a $500,000 grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs to help expand and remodel its building.

“This is too small. It’s too crowded here right now, so if we get this grant, we can really make this bigger,” Spencer said.

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Rock Steady Boxing

What it is: A non-contact boxing-inspired fitness routine that dramatically improves the ability of people with Parkinson’s disease to live independent lives.

Where: The Social of Greenwood, 550 Polk St.


Levels 1 and 2 (recently diagnosed)

  • Tuesday: 9:15 to 10:45 a.m.
  • Friday: 3 to 4:30 p.m.

Levels 3 and 4 (more severely affected patients)

  • Wednesday: noon to 1:30 p.m. and 2 to 3:30 p.m.

All levels

  • Tuesday: 2:30 to 4 p.m. and 5:30 to 7 p.m.
  • Friday: 1 to 2:30 p.m.
  • Saturday: 9:15 to 10:45 a.m.

What it consists of: Overall fitness, strength training, reaction time and balance. Workouts include focus mitts, heavy bags, speed bags, double-ended bags, jump rope, core work, calisthenics and circuit weight work training.

Who can do it: Men and women of any age who have Parkinson’s are invited to participate. No boxing experience is necessary.

Cost: $10 per class. A punch card for eight classes costs $65

All participants are required to have a 30-minute individual assessment before starting the class. Assessment sessions can be scheduled by calling 317-882-4810. The assessment cost is $15.


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Sparkles & Spurs

What: A fundraiser to support programing at the Social of Greenwood, including Rock Steady Boxing.

When: 6 p.m. Oct. 12

Where: The Barn at Bay Horse Inn, 1468 Stones Crossing Road, Greenwood

What’s included: Food, music, raffles, silent auction and more.

Tickets: $60, or $45 for members of the Social of Greenwood

Information: or 317-882-4810