Tag Archives: Rock Steady Boxing

Punching Back Against Parkinson’s

March 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The up-tempo music pulsating from the rehabilitation wing at Life Care Center of Elkhorn doesn’t signal “party time” for physical therapists ending their shift; it signals the start of another Rock Steady Boxing session for people who’ve been knocked down—but not out—by a cruel, insidious, relentless, and incurable foe: Parkinson’s disease.

Gary Johnson, diagnosed with the degenerative movement disorder about 12 years ago when he first got tremors, usually arrives early for an afternoon boxing workout. His wife drives him twice a week from their home in Fort Calhoun to the nursing and rehab facility, where Johnson greets other outpatients who share his struggles.

“I can barely talk,” Johnson says in a whisper. “[Parkinson’s] paralyzes your voice box. I’ve had DBS [deep brain stimulation], which helps with my shaking, but it hasn’t helped my balance. That’s why I come here to boxing.”

Seven men, all past 60 and exhibiting a range of Parkinson’s symptoms from mild to severe, lace up their boxing gloves and take a position on the gym floor around a makeshift boxing ring—a low platform topped with thick brown mats.

But instead of hitting each other, the boxers practice their jabs, uppercuts, and right hooks on freestanding punching bags (including a mannequin-like “body opponent bag” affectionately known by its acronym, BOB).

Coupled with a rigorous calisthenics and aerobic workout led by a Parkinson’s-trained fitness instructor, the hour-long boxing session leaves the boxers sweaty but invigorated.

“This is completely non-contact,” explains Cheri Prince, director of rehabilitation services at Life Care of Elkhorn. “Rock Steady Boxing is a national program that started in Indianapolis and Life Care became a Rock Steady affiliate two years ago. It utilizes the kind of fitness regimen boxers go through.”

Why boxing, of all things, the brutal sport of Muhammad Ali (who also fought Parkinson’s)?

“Boxers have to have speed and great balance, with the ability to move quickly on their feet. Parkinson’s patients struggle with that. Their movements get progressively slower,” Prince says. “Boxers have to be agile and flexible. Parkinson’s patients have trouble with rigidity and lack of flexibility. There are a lot of parallels.”

Paul Jackson

To get their limbs moving and muscles working, trainer Abbie Harvey pushes the group through a series of precise arm and leg stretches, forward and sideways lunges, steps to the front and back, deep knee bends, shoulder pushes off the mats, and jumping jacks.

She then gives the order to start punching, which the boxers perform with surprising ferocity. Their ever-supportive wives, sitting together as a group watching the workout, smile at the sudden burst of power.

Boxers yell out the number of punches or reps to help keep their voices strong. The music adds some fun and socialization to what amounts to a grueling workout.

The benefits of the boxing should not be underestimated. Gary Johnson, who used to work for the National Resource Conservation Service, says his walking and balance are much better.

George Moon, a framing carpenter from North Omaha whose symptoms include the inability to stand up straight, has also experienced progress.

“I noticed improvement in my writing, which was getting smaller. That’s one thing that goes. Since I started boxing here two years ago, my writing is back to normal,” Moon says.

Current research backs up their claims. While drugs manage some symptoms of Parkinson’s, only exercise has proven to actually slow its progression. Proponents of exercise point to another crucial benefit, too.

“Attitude is like 90 percent of the battle and depression is prevalent,” says Julie Pavelka, a nurse practitioner who works directly with Parkinson’s patients at Nebraska Medicine. “Exercise actually promotes stimulation of the neurochemicals, including serotonin and dopamine, that affect mood and emotions. The mood benefits from exercise are very significant.”

George Moon

Perhaps that’s why Paul Jackson and his fellow boxers don’t dwell on the lousy hand dealt to them. They’re not angry; they don’t wallow in self-pity or curse their fate.

“What you can do is take what you’ve got, like exercise and boxing, take the tools you have and try to make the most of them,” says Jackson, who displays only a slight hitch to his gait. “We’re hoping they find a cure, but I know it won’t be in my lifetime.”

For the over 500 Nebraskans diagnosed with Parkinson’s each year (most are seniors), a cure can’t come fast enough.

“We’re in the Parkinson’s belt along with Iowa, North Dakota, and Minnesota,” explains Pavelka, highlighting what researchers suspect: pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers may somehow play a role in contracting the disease.

For people living with Parkinson’s in the Omaha area who wish to focus on their quality of life and forge new friendships, a little boxing ring may be just what the doctor ordered.

Life Care Center of Elkhorn offers Rock Steady Boxing to outpatients every Monday at 4 p.m., and Wednesdays at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sessions cost $10 each, no reservations required. Visit lifecarecenterofelkhorn.com for more information.

George Moon

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of 60 Plus.

Polka & Other Highlights

February 23, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

As always, 60Plus includes many good reads.

A personal favorite of mine in this edition is the story on polka in Omaha. Many in Omaha will remember “Big Joe” Siedlik and his Big Joe Polka Show, which started on the radio and transitioned to TV.

Music like polka never goes out of style. My husband and I used to love to polka dance; in fact, we met because I took dance classes from him. He held large ballroom classes in Bell’s Hall in Papillion. I paid for the first three classes out of 12. Eventually, I taught dance with him—we taught a giant class at Offutt Air Force Base and smaller classes in private homes. We taught polka, rock and swing, foxtrot, waltz, tango, and cha-cha. We spent many evenings with friends dancing at The Peony Park Ballroom and The Music Box. I still run into people who were in our classes. It was great exercise—I should get back to dancing.

Also in this issue, we feature artist Alicia Sancho Scherich, who lives in Bellevue and was once a pen pal of Mother Teresa. She created a mural titled “World Peace,” which was on display at Creighton Lied Art Gallery in 2017.

Then there’s geologist Allan Jeanneret and his wife, artist Tammy, who have turned their hobby into a business.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nancy Waltman and Dr. Laura Bilek share their ongoing research of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Bone health is more important than many realize.

Finally, in this edition’s Active Living article, we have the story of a group fighting Parkinson’s with rock music and boxing at Life Care Center in Elkhorn. Rock Steady Boxing is a national program utilizing the kind of fitness regimen boxers go through—helping their balance and walking.

Gwen and Ray Lemke, Peony Park 1955

This letter was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.