Taking the fight to Parkinson’s

Rock Steady Boxing provides participants tools to combat Parkinson’s disease

By Jeremy Dunn

It is a beautiful Friday afternoon. The sun is shining and, for one moment, the temperature is behaving as it should in April in Indiana. In offices and schools everywhere, minds are drifting to thoughts of wrapping up the week and starting the weekend — except at The Social of Greenwood, where the mood is markedly different.

Here, Rock Steady Boxing participants are putting in serious sweat equity as the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” echo through the gym. The song’s tempo increases, along with heartrates and efforts in the room. If you listen closely, you can almost hear boxing gloves slamming against bags and see participants grin with confidence.

These boxers aren’t training for a prize fight or major trophy. Rather they face an opponent larger than anything you’ve seen in a Rocky movie. This group is taking the fight to Parkinson’s disease, and they don’t intend to back down.

Parkinson’s disease is progressive neurodegenerative disorder that attacks the nervous system. Causes are still relatively unknown and there is no cure. The disease is not fatal, but it can cause daily life challenges. Symptoms present differently in each case, but most individuals living with Parkinson’s develop tremors, slow movements and difficulties with balance and coordination.

An estimated 1 million or more Americans live with Parkinson’s disease, and nearly 60,000 are diagnosed each year. The condition gained national attention in 1998, when beloved “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox disclosed his battle with the disease. This Michael J. Fox Foundation was formed in 2000 and has since donated more than $700 million to Parkinson’s research.

The spotlight grew larger locally when former Marion County Prosecutor Scott C. Newman was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Shortly after his diagnosis, Newman began participating in one-on-one boxing training — and remarkably experienced a dramatic increase in his overall quality of life. He credited the improvements to this intense boxing regimen, and in 2006 founded Rock Steady Boxing with a mission to help others with Parkinson’s “fight back” through boxing classes.

Regaining balance

Research, including studies from Butler University and the University of Indianapolis, shows that fitness programs like Rock Steady Boxing positively impact life quality for people battling Parkinson’s by strengthening muscles, improving balance, building endurance and ultimately slowing progression of the disease. These findings have made Rock Steady Boxing a popular, attractive option nationally.

The program caught the attention of The Social of Greenwood, and in 2014, the nonprofit decided to become the only Rock Steady Boxing affiliate in Johnson County. Director of Operations Ashley Koval said, “There was an immediate need for that program in Johnson County, and we are lucky enough to be a part of it.”

What began as a handful of Johnson County residents looking to combat Parkinson’s has blossomed into something special. The Social of Greenwood hosts nine Rock Steady Boxing classes each week, employs four trainers and boasts over 70 participants. Each class runs for an hour and a half and is led by a Rock Steady Boxing certified trainer, along with community volunteers and caregivers lovingly dubbed “corner people.”

The Beach Boys and ‘Bob’

Now, the sounds of the Beach Boys resonate in the room as participants, glistening in sweat and wearing proud smiles, work their way through intense boxing stations. In this moment, the symptoms of Parkinson’s cannot hold them back. Some work on speed bags. Others are punching heavy bags. One participant is striking “Bob,” the resident punching dummy. At the center of the room, another participant dances and trades jabs with Christa Martin, a certified Rock Steady Boxing trainers.

Participants teasingly describe Martin as the toughest instructor, citing her reputation for challenging workouts and high expectations. Don’t let the label fool you. Martin’s classes are helping participants build physical strength and grow confidence to face the challenges Parkinson’s disease has brought into their lives.

“This is a fun group,” said Pat Roti, a three-year participant. “Boxing is really building up our strength in so many ways.”

Bob Butts, who attends class twice a week, agrees. “It is very helpful. Sometimes it is things you wouldn’t even think about. Nearly a year ago, I couldn’t reach back to get a seatbelt. Now I can do it.”

Martin says she gets as much from the experience as she gives.

“They motivate me. It is amazing to see the progress: balance, flexibility, strength, endurance … everything. One day someone may struggle to balance on one foot, and a few weeks later they are doing it with confidence,” she said.

There are boxing gloves and punching bags, but Rock Steady is not your traditional boxing class. This is a family fighting to improve their quality of life and standing up to a force they were told could not be stopped. This is Rock Steady Boxing.


The Social of Greenwood
500 Polk St.
Greenwood, IN 46143
Phone: (317) 882-4810

Interested in Rock Steady Boxing as a participant, trainer or volunteer? Want to know how you can help? Contact Ashley Koval, director of operations for The Social of Greenwood, at (317) 882-4810 or ashley@thesocialofgreenwood.org. 

Learn more about Rock Steady Boxing at rocksteadyboxing.org.