Parkinson's patients fight disease with their fists

Fourteen people travel to Snohomish Fitness twice a week to box and to battle their Parkinson's disease. (Photo: KOMO News).

SNOHOMISH, Wash. --At 83-years old, Donna Thorp isn't your typical boxer. But she's standing in a small gym in Snohomish, tapping her gloves together, asking if it's time to start. She wants her boxing class to get going.

"Yeah. Before I get too tired," she explained.

Donna is one of 14 people who travels to Snohomish Fitness twice a week. For 90 minutes, they unleash on the speed bag , the heavy bag, and they practice bobbing and weaving. But they never face off against each other. Instead, everyone here fights the same opponent: Parkinson's disease.

The program is called Rock Steady Boxing. It was established as a non-profit a decade ago in Indiana and now has a growing presence in Western Washington, with studios in Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Covington, Gig Harbor, Ferndale, Vancouver, Wenatchee, and Walla Walla. Lacey Ramone launched classes one month ago in Snohomish and already sees a difference in her clients.

"It calms the tremors," Ramone said. "It might not calm them right away, but within a couple of hours, a lot of times they feel like that helps steady those outward symptoms."

After 30 years with Parkinson's, Richard Striker reached a point where he needed a wheelchair or walker all the time. By his second week in class, he ditched it.

"I went to get the cart and bring it over to him thinking he forgot it," Richard's wife, Pamela Moore, said. "And he said, 'I don't need it.' So then I just stepped back and let him do his thing."

"I found I can direct myself more upward with this boxing," Striker added. "I don't know why. I really don't."

There are studies trying to answer that question, including one at the University of Indianapolis that specifically looked at participants in the Rock Steady boxing program. Multiple researchers found exercise that focuses on agility, balance and strength training benefits Parkinson's patients, not only with their physical health, but neurologically. They believe this type of class might actually slow the disease progression in the brain.

"The big thing they're certain works is the forced intensity," Ramone said. "That's where a person wants to work hard, then they get to that point where, I'm kinda done. I don't want to do more. And that's where we come in as coaches and are like, you can do five more, let's go!"

That tough love approach not only pushes them to do more in class, they're pushing themselves outside of class, too.

"I don't know why. I don't know if the exercises make me more ambitious, but I do have a lot more ambition than I had before," Thorp said. "I don't know exactly why it's helped, but it just has. More than the pills I was taking."

Parkinson's slowly robs people of vital nerve cells in the brain. It steals motor function. There is no cure.

But for these people, there's also no throwing in the towel. They have something worth fighting for.

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