BLACKSBURG — Some folks come to Warm Hearth Retirement Village’s fitness center’s newest exercise class with walkers, canes and a bent-over posture.

But they are fighters, all of them. And they have the boxing gloves to prove it.

The opponent is Parkinson’s disease.

The boxers at Warm Hearth’s Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) class are fighting the degenerative neurological disease one jab at a time. In one, if not Southwest Virginia’s first boxing program aimed at improving physical skills for people battling Parkinson’s, participants come from all around to New River Valley to do drills specifically targeting Parkinson’s symptoms. They squat; they lunge; they jump.

But most of all, they box. They work on developing sprightly footwork for balance and agility. They learn how to throw punches and sock hefty bags. They hit smaller speed bags in a drum-beat rhythm —wham, wham, wham. It seems strange at first, especially to the women, but they grow to love it.

They do not hit each other; this is non-contact boxing fitness training. Participants do get to hit Fitness Center Director Kenny Harrah — in his mitt. With Harrah’s encouragement, they practice different punches to improve their coordination. They yell like warriors.

“Yelling is good,” Harrah said. “Parkinson’s damages the nerves of their vocal cords and shouting helps to strengthen their voices.”

Harrah, a gerontologist and certified personal trainer, has learned a lot about specific exercises for improving Parkinson’s sufferers’ balance, mobility and strength. He recently traveled to Indianapolis to undergo certification in the Rock Steady Boxing program at the urging of Parkinson’s patient Jim Craig and his family and with a special grant from friends of Warm Hearth. Craig was introduced to Rock Steady Boxing at Morehead City, N.C., and is now a member of Harrah’s bi-weekly class at Warm Hearth.

“My son noticed changes in Jim after just a few weeks in the Morehead City boxing class. He said, ‘Dad’s a different person. He needs to keep this up,’” said Lois Craig, Jim’s wife. “So my son talked to people at Warm Hearth, and Kenny ended up going to Indiana for training.”

Rock Steady Boxing was started by former Indiana county prosecutor Scott Newman, who developed Parkinson’s at age 41. After his diagnosis, Newman began an intensive, one-on-one boxing training program which he claims dramatically improved his agility, daily functioning and overall physical health. In 2006, he founded Rock Steady Boxing and hired former world champion professional boxer Kristy Rose Follmar as head trainer. The program has developed exercises for all stages of Parkinson’s – from the newly diagnosed to wheelchair-bound people with severe symptoms.

Parkinson’s affects more than a million people in the U.S., according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. It is caused by the deterioration of brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical regulating movement, coordination and emotional responses. This can lead to symptoms such as tremors, muscle rigidity, impaired coordination, speech problems and mood disorders.

In Harrah’s class, the dozen participants aren’t focused on what they can’t do, but what they are determined they will do. They put their all into leaping, passing a 12-pound medicine ball, and holding their body in a plank position against a wall for two whole minutes. Then they pound the sand bags.

“I’m so proud of them,” Harrah said. “They’re bringing me their A-game even though they’re not used to working out in a gym or wearing boxing gloves. There are no slackers here.”

During Rock Steady Boxing training, Harrah learned not to think people with Parkinson’s couldn’t do exercises that are hard for healthy people. He saw what they could do and heard stories of tremors disappearing.

“They can do the work and they do,” he said. “I started seeing changes in them after just two or three classes, in their posture, their strength, their coordination and their mood.”

Laughter ripples through the class. These folks, in their 60s and 70s, vent their frustrations on the punching bag. They feel better. And they’re among kindred spirits. They salute each other in a circle at the beginning and end of each class.

“These people are forming friendships. It’s sort of a Parkie support group,” Harrah said.

“This group is a godsend,” said Judy McBride, who, in her early 60s, is the youngest member of the class. “I did other exercises, including yoga, but none helped me as much as this has.”

Harrah plans to bring a tai chi instructor into the class once a month for extra coordination and balance work. Experts say learning new movements challenges the brain to create new circuits. Participants gain more control over their movements through these new neural pathways.

And they’re having fun.

“We’re not aging,” said participant Kathy Faust of Pearisburg after three rounds with the sand bag. “We’re maturing.”

Warm Hearth’s Rock Steading Boxing class is open to anyone over 55 with a Parkinson’s diagnosis. The cost is $75 per person or $105 per couple per month. For more information, call the fitness center at 443-3474.

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