Boxing is knocking out Parkinson’s Disease at Rock Steady

By Annabelle Knef

A not-for-profit boxing club in O’Fallon is helping people with Parkinson’s Disease in a remarkable way – by providing workouts that promote agility, balance, coordination, strength, flexibility and power that helps turn things around for those who tend toward seclusion.

Rock Steady Boxing, which was founded in Indianapolis in 2006, was brought to O’Fallon in September of 2016 by executive director Mickey Dobbins and Deb Belsheim.

Belsheim said she became familiar with the program after her own father, 83-year-old Don Thomas, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and she stumbled upon a CBS program detailing Rock Steady Boxing.

“My father has Parkinson’s and he was diagnosed eight or nine years ago,” Belsheim said. “For the most part, he would just be home and not go anywhere. This program has changed his life and so many others that have chosen to fight back.”

According to Belsheim, after watching a CBS Rock Steady video, she shared it with her friend Mickey [Dobbins] who then asked “How could I help?”

“So often people who do have Parkinson’s, you don’t even see them out. So many of them stay in because they are embarrassed or have a fear of falling. They just resign themselves to ‘this disease is going to take me down and I’m going to let it happen’,” Belsheim said. “Rock Steady has proven them wrong.”

Belsheim said that she and Dobbins have witnessed first-hand many successful transformations. The cardiovascular workout promotes what is missing in the brain, she said – dopamine.

“We can’t promise anything, we are an exercise program,” Belsheim said. “These people love it and their families are so grateful. They always look forward to class.”

During a class, participants spend approximately 10 minutes actively boxing in five, two-minute rounds, Belsheim said. Five heavy bags, a boxing dummy named “Bob” and boxing gloves are readily available. Medicine balls, ropes, hula hoops, hand weights, Pilates rings, step-ups, bands and jump ropes are also in play.

Trainers in the program can modify every movement so that each of the boxers, whether they are in a chair or standing, will benefit.

“Every movement has a specific purpose that targets a weakness or a symptom of PD [Parkinson’s Disease],” Belsheim said.

The Rock Steady program in O’Fallon began with only two boxers, one of whom included Belsheim’s father, and has grown to 16 regulars twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

Four certified trainers who attended the certification process in Indianapolis for the Rock Steady Boxing program are on staff and the rest are volunteers also called “corner people.”

“If we had 12 or 13 volunteers for each class, that would be great,” Belsheim said. “Some of these boxers can stand but only for a certain period of time, so if we have corner people there with them, they could maybe do it for an hour.”

Both Belsheim and Dobbins agreed that beyond physical benefits from the Rock Steady Boxing program, there is an “unquestionable” social and psychological component for the Parkinson’s patients.

“As time has gone on in the past two years, we have realized and understood the importance of the psychological aspects of all of the boxers who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. They all understand what each other lives with. It has brought a tremendous amount of camaraderie,” Belsheim said. “But it goes even deeper than that.”

Dobbins said that she cannot recall ever being around the Rock Steady boxers when they are talking about their disease. “They are just enjoying each other’s company,” she said.

“When they are there together for that hour, they are who they were before they had the disease. Their personalities shine through,” Belsheim said. “It’s my dad before he ever had the disease. He is the dad that I knew 30 years ago.”

Rock Steady Boxing has a new partnership with HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and Belsheim and Dobbins plan on utilizing the partnership to further help patients within a program called The Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT) specifically for those with Parkinson’s.

According to Laura Lake, coordinator at the Inpatient Comprehensive Rehabilitation Unit for St. Elizabeth’s, the first symptom that Parkinson’s patients experience is a “change in their voice.”

Lake said there are two different LSVT programs – the “Loud” program and the “Big” program, given in four individual one-hour sessions per week.

LSVT Loud improves vocal loudness by stimulating the muscles of the voice box (larynx) and speech mechanism through a hierarchy of exercises, as well as the newer LSVT Big program which focuses on limb movement designed to improve quality of life.

To qualify for St. Elizabeth’s LSVT program, an individual must have a Parkinson’s diagnosis and then contact the hospital’s outpatient therapy.

Belsheim and Dobbins said they hope the O’Fallon boxing program continues to grow.

“We are looking for a larger location. We are quickly outgrowing our space at C1,” Belsheim said.

The cost to participate in Rock Steady Boxing is $60 a month and takes place at C1 Fit located at 502 W State Street in O’Fallon.