Those with Parkinson’s fight disease — literally in Carson City
When you walk into Tazmanian Boxing Club on Monday afternoon, the sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” mixes with the shouts of “Who are we?” and the even louder response of “Rock Steady!”
Clad in pink, black, and red gloves are some of the most dedicated athletes in Carson City. No excuses are accepted in this gym as the boxers work through hundreds of reps of upper cuts, jabs and jumping jacks.
But these aren’t your average boxers, these are Rock Steady boxers and all of them are battling Parkinson’s disease.
Nina Vogel started the Rock Steady program in Carson City after seeing the need in the community for a Parkinson’s physical therapy program.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, chronic neurodegenerative disease that damages the dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain. The depletion or loss of dopamine cells leads to less mobility and control over limb movements and symptoms often include tremors, freezing or slowness.
As a physical therapist for Carson Tahoe Hospital, Vogel knew the benefits of intense forced exercise for people with the disease and decided to bring a program here.
“I started doing it in my physical therapy appointments, but I only have so much time and so many slots to be able to see people,” Vogel said. “So we talked about doing it in a gym setting. It was like well great; now I have to start a gym!”
It was then Vogel partnered with Cisco Rodriguez at Tazmanian Boxing Club to offer two boxing classes for people with Parkinson’s.
“I like helping people, they are like my family now,” Vogel said. “I felt like this was needed here and other people thought so too, so I figured I could be the person to bring it and with my experience with Parkinson’s at work, it was like this is what people need.”
Rock Steady is a national program, held in gyms all over the country. It was founded in 2006 after Indiana prosecutor Scott C. Newman created a one-on-one boxing training after he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s.
“We want to just keep them moving, it helps with Parkinson’s, it doesn’t cure it, but it slows the process,” said Rodriguez. “They don’t give up here, they keep going and going…it is important because of how it makes them feel about themselves, and they always come in with a smile.”
The point of the classes is to have participants do high intense forced exercises, which studies have shown provide incredible benefits to those with the disease.
“High intense forced exercise is neuroproductive and restorative so it helps create new neurons in the brain,” Vogel said. “Forced exercise with Parkinson’s boots dopamine production and creates new channels to learn new skills and retrains the brain so it can get better.”
And of course, the classes help with the physical ailments associated with the disease. During the classes, the participants do it all — burpees, circuits, heavy bags, squats and more. Vogel said the point is for them to do big, reciprocal movements to really make the body move.
“It is all non-contact, and all targeted for people with Parkinson’s,” Vogel said. “Parkinson’s impacts balance, speed, coordination, power and posture, all things that are addressed in boxing.”
The movements are all big and exaggerated to get the boxers moving and working on their multitasking skills — both of which are difficult with Parkinson’s.
“They are often surprised at what they can do and what we push them to do. It is hard and it is intense.”
Vogel said she often tells the participants the workouts are designed to kick their butts, so they’re getting the most benefit out of what they’re doing.
“They need to push themselves, I tell them that is what is going to make them feel better,” Vogel said. “If you go at your own speed, you will relax or slow down and with me, they are surprised at how much they can do because I don’t let them make excuses.”
For Rock Steady newcomer Jim Harper, that push is both a blessing and a curse.
“It forces me to get out of my chair and get moving, even though we have some pretty comfortable chairs,” Harper said. “They push you and I know they have to.”
But for Harper even though the coaches are tough, the support system inside the gym is worthwhile.
“There are nice people here, they help you,” Harper said. “They make you do something but there is someone right there to help you.”
The camaraderie is part of the reason Mike and Diane Noble also come to the gym. Mike was diagnosed this fall with Parkinson’s and after his neurosurgeon suggested the class, the pair decided to give it a try.
“Mike is diligent, if he believes it will help him, he will try,” Diane said. She is Mike’s care partner and comes with her husband every class to watch.
“(Nina and Cisco) give their all to these guys and they give it all back,” Diane said. “Rock Steady isn’t a cure, but it treats the symptoms so anything you can do to suspend that progression is wonderful. They are really dedicated and take personal responsibility for everything they do.”
And for the pair, coming to Rock Steady helps remind them living with Parkinson’s doesn’t mean being all consumed by the disease.
“The diagnosis doesn’t define him, we don’t let it define our lives,” Diane said.
Previous Parkinson’s research didn’t include exercise, as a way to help live with Parkinson’s, typically the stigma is the disease is a death sentence. Vogel said most doctors still won’t recommend exercise to their patients as a solution.
“For a long time, there wasn’t a thing for it, and doctors told people you can’t do anything about it,” Vogel said. “And it is hard to change that stigma because there is so much you can do about it.”
Vogel claims one of the participants who was days away from being in a wheelchair because of the disease and after starting Rock Steady can now walk on her own and even go up and down stairs. She said another participant went to the neurologist and his Parkinson’s hadn’t changed in more than two years — an extraordinary accomplishment to see with the progressive disease.
“I love seeing people accomplish their goals,” Vogel said. “I had people tell me that they couldn’t do it and they could.”
But in Northern Nevada, the popularity for the program has grown. Since their founding in 2015, Vogel and Rodriguez added more classes and another level at their gym in Carson and also opened a Rocky Steady program in Reno last year. They’re now looking at adding a third level class to their program as well.
“We started with one class, one day a week and now we are up to two classes three days a week,” Vogel said. “Now we want to add a third level for those in a wheelchair so they can participate as well. But it has been amazing to watch it grow and see that we need more classes.”
There are two levels to the classes: level 1 is a faster paced class more suited towards those in the early stages of the disease, while level 2 is slower and more individualized.
In addition to the physical benefits, the Rock Steady program provides a close community for those with Parkinson’s and even their care partners in Northern Nevada.
“It is a huge support system,” Vogel said. “There are non-motor symptoms like depression and such and they can feel embarrassed about their physical symptoms and can withdraw and put people out. But here there is something about that shared misery in a group workout and that camaraderie. When you fight together it is not as miserable than if you are working out by yourself.”
Carson City classes are Monday and Wednesday, 3 to 4 p.m. for level 2, 4 to 5 p.m. for level 1 and Fridays 3:30 to 5 for all levels. It’s $80 a month for unlimited classes and the first class is free.
Check the Nevada Appeal each Tuesday in April for coverage on Parkinson’s Awareness Month.