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Local boxers packing a punch against Parkinson's

Posted at 9:07 PM, Feb 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-16 23:44:20-05

ASHWAUBENON, Wis. (NBC 26) -- A class at Western Racquet & Fitness Club is helping people with Parkinson's Disease one punch at a time. It's called Rock Steady Boxing.

Parkinson's Disease is a neurological diagnosis dealing with a lack of dopamine in the brain, or the inability for the brain to use dopamine effectively, according to Ashley Verbeten, a physical therapist at Prevea Therapy Institute who works with Parkinson's patients. This can cause a person to see physical effects like shuffling gaits and small movements. Verbeten said people can also develop a flat affect of the face and speech challenges.

Within the last nearly 15 years, Verbeten said research is showing more exercise with increased intensity is showing great results in people with Parkinson's, slowing progression of some of the physical effects of the disease. That's where classes like Rock Steady Boxing come in.

"We have about 30 boxers that come in and take the class," said Kari Merrill, the group fitness and programming director at Western Racquet & Fitness Club.

Merrill said they started with just nine boxers and have grown quite a bit since they began offering the class just under two years ago. They have a wide range of ages in the class from people in their 50s to 80s.

"This is a lot of work. Every day you get up, it's a fight for the life you want," said Bill Selissen, one of the boxers. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's a year and a half ago. That's when he started coming to Rock Steady Boxing.

"I couldn't ring a wash cloth out. I couldn't use a screwdriver. I couldn't do a lot of stuff. I couldn't raise my arms hardly. I couldn't get in bed and pull the covers up over my head," added Selissen.

Rock Steady Boxing has allowed him to continue doing the things Parkinson's tried to take away. He now is able to throw out jabs and crosses on the heavy bags and do many of the other activities in class. He said he still tremors, but that's all he really has left. He said he has good balance, his dexterity has come back, and he's much strong. He added that he tells everybody with Parkinson's to come to a class like this because it is so important.

Merrill said they have seen significant changes in the boxers. Some telling her and the other coaches they can now do things like button up their shirts because of the hard work they do in class.

"We do balance every single class. We can now look around and see they're not using a wall or a person to help them balance. We see on the speed-bag, hand-eye coordination. We see their voices. We work on voice activation. So just their overall athletic ability. I mean, they're doing push-ups and planks, and they're aware of how to engage, and you know, take the risk away from falling," added Merrill.

She said it's incredible seeing the boxers fight back.

"I've never seen anything like it. I haven't, in my 20 years in the fitness industry," added Merrill.

Rock Steady Boxing is a 75 minute class offered three times a week at Western Racquet & Fitness Club. As Merrill said, they work on all the things Parkinson's can affect like balance, dexterity, cognitive, strength, and core.

It's also an opportunity for people with Parkinson's to fight the disease together. Dave Swanson said he's always been active. He described himself as a big outdoors guy and with a 33-year career in law enforcement. He said when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's ten years ago, it was a surprise.

"It was really hard at first. It can be very depressing, so you have to find a way around that depression to climb out and keep going," added Swanson.

He said it's great being able to socialize with others who are going through a similar experience, and it's formed some friendships outside of the class, too. Plus, he, too, has seen improvements with his balance and gait.

"The coaches are always with you helping you do more, so you're able to get to that next rung on the ladder and keep moving up, fighting back Parkinson's because Parkinson's doesn't give up," added Swanson.

While it might not be a cure, many of the boxers are grateful for Rock Steady Boxing and all it's done to help them fight back against Parkinson's.

If you or someone you know has Parkinson's and is interested in the class, or if you're interested in getting involved by volunteering, click here for more information.