Rock Steady: Fitness Class Has Parkinson’s Disease on the Ropes

by Melinda Lejman | photos courtesy Memphis Jewish Community Center

Each year, approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a long-term, degenerative neurological disorder that mainly affects a person’s movement. While the symptoms may develop slowly over a long period of time, the effects can be debilitating. Symptoms can include tremors, limb rigidity, gait and balance problems, and sluggish motor activity and responses.

In addition to medication, fitness can be key to combating the symptoms
of this incurable disease. At the Memphis Jewish Community Center (MJCC), one fitness class isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to helping those affected by the disease. Rock Steady, a fitness program designed specifically for people with PD, gives participants hope and improved quality of life through non-contact boxing.

Mandy Kelley, MJCC Fitness Director

Mandy Kelley, MJCC Fitness Director, picked up the boxing class when a previous trainer was no longer able to continue teaching the class. She received certification at the Rock Steady headquarters in Indianapolis where the non-profit that created the program is based. “You get to see all the tricks that they’ve figured out along the way with Parkinson’s,” says Kelley. “It’s a great program, because you’re allowed to be so creative in what you do.”

Each class brings around a dozen or more Boxers to the gym, where they work on fitness activities to help stave off the symptoms of the disease. But the therapy doesn’t stop there. “It’s a community,” says Kelley. “They don’t feel like they’re just coming to get a workout in. They also feel like, ‘I’m finally in a place where I’m not that person with Parkinson’s, I’m a boxer hanging out with my friends.’”

The class is also helpful for the “Cornermen” who come to class with their Boxer. “We don’t like to use the term caregiver, because it can have a negative connotation,” says Kelley. “It kind of takes away that sense of self.” According to Kelley, the person with PD, depending on where they are in their progression, can take a lot out of that Cornerman. “It’s been nice to see those people come together, be able to relax and talk about what they’re dealing with at home, and seek support as well.”

What Kelley believes has been a key reason for Rock Steady’s popularity is partly due to an increase in PD diagnosis, but also the need for community and a support system. “We have found that a lot of people who are newly diagnosed really like to get with the rest of the group and talk about what that diagnosis means.”

Currently, the class meets three times per week and is open to members of the MJCC as well as non-members. As the class grows, Kelley anticipates bringing on another trainer and adding more class offerings, each focusing on different skill levels to better serve the needs of their Boxers. What Kelley sees her Boxers getting out of the class is more strength, independence and increased confidence.

“I have participated in Rock Steady since spring 2016. I am much stronger and feel more independent and secure when I’m moving” says Bette Arndt, a Rock Steady boxer. “And an unexpected plus is the great friends I have made, including the coaches who have worked with us. I encourage everyone with PD to try it!”