Sheila Proehl saw a TV news story by CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl a few years ago about Rock Steady Boxing, a program for people with Parkinson’s disease. Stahl highlighted the program because of its positive impact on her husband, writer Aaron Latham, who has Parkinson’s.

Proehl, a Macalester-Groveland resident and former hospital executive, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and figured Rock Steady Boxing would be worth a try. She found a gym offering the program and has been a Rock Steady participant ever since, attending classes every week. On a recent Tuesday, she worked out with a handful of Parkinson’s patients at Element Gym, 655 N. Fairview Ave.

“I found it really slowed my symptoms because the exercises are intensive,” Proehl said. “That’s what I needed to get past some of the symptoms those of us with Parkinson’s all experience.”

Rock Steady Boxing began in 2006 in Indiana when prosecutor Scott Newman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 40. His friend, Golden Gloves boxing champion Vince Perez, designed an exercise program to help with the neurological challenges faced by people living with Parkinson’s. Studies later confirmed that boxing exercises, movements and sparring help people with the disease improve their balance, mobility and quality of life.

Rock Steady Boxing
Macalester-Groveland resident Sheila Proehl, left, gets some punches in with the help of co-director Kim Heikkila of Highland Park during a Rock Steady Boxing session at Element Gym. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Participants don gloves and spar with boxing bags, coaches and classmates. North End resident John Moon, 72, spent part of Tuesday’s class at Element Gym sparring with Highland Park resident Kim Heikkila, who oversees the Rock Steady Boxing Saint Paul program.

“It gets me sweaty, it takes the breath out of me, it builds my strength,” Moon said. “I’ve never boxed before and I can tell you it’s hard. We work out for a minute, take a break and work out again. It’s good for our stamina.”

Heikkila, a writer and historian, taught at the Upper Cut Boxing Gym in Minneapolis before working with Rock Steady. Her father, “an athletic guy” who had Parkinson’s, would have benefited from a program like Rock Steady Boxing, she said. When Upper Cut closed in 2019, around 35 students and six coaches migrated to the Rock Steady Boxing chapter that Element Gym had just started.

 

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Boxing entails an intense workout where participants learn to stay on their feet while moving backward, forward and from side to side, a good skill to develop when facing a disease like Parkinson’s that often affects balance and coordination.

“We can train people with Parkinson’s in ways that can help them maintain their balance when they’re going about their daily lives,” Heikkila said.

“They use all the equipment we use and they work out hard,” Heikkila said. “Most of them not only have Parkinson’s, but they’re in their 60s and 70s. It’s quite impressive seeing them do this.”

Parkinson’s often causes tremors. In boxing, class members are forced to move in “multiple planes of direction,” Heikkila said. It also improves hand-eye coordination and even vocal cords as classes count while doing squats and yell their names while punching a bag. Class members also sometimes jump an invisible rope.

Many of the participants show up two or three times a week and have been attending Rock Steady Boxing since it began, Heikkila said. The hour-long classes are held at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

“They use all the equipment we use and they work out hard,” Heikkila said. “Most of them not only have Parkinson’s, but they’re in their 60s and 70s. It’s quite impressive seeing them do this.”

Trainers who work with the program say they have seen positive changes in participants. Katie Grove, who co-directs the local Rock Steady program, was an athletic trainer at the University of Indiana before retiring and moving to Saint Paul. In working with people with Parkinson’s, she has found boxing sharpens their cognitive skills through physical exertion. She said boxing also utilizes many of the types of training she saw athletes performing while on college teams at Indiana.

Jesse Mercier has been a volunteer trainer with Rock Steady Boxing for a few years. During that time, he has seen participants reverse some of the effects of Parkinson’s. “It’s really through all this vigorous exercise” that they have regained mobility and balance, he said.

However, Rocky Steady Boxing is not just about exercising.

“I’ve made some friendships,” Proehl said. “We get together outside the gym sometimes. It’s like a support group, but not a support group where you complain about what’s going on. You support one another and it’s fun.”

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Heikkila also represents CoMotion: Center for Movement, of which Element Gym is a part. CoMotion has received a grant from the Parkinson’s Foundation to develop new classes in dance, drumming and martial arts to supplement its Rock Steady program.

Free workshops are being offered for anyone who has or knows someone who has Parkinson’s or simply wants to learn about the disease and how movement can help control symptoms. A handful of workshops have been held already, and two more are scheduled.

Upcoming workshops include one on boxing and dance from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, May 15, and one featuring boxing, dance, Qigong, drumming and Taekwondo from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, June 12. For information, call 651-758-0758 or visit pdwellnessworkshops.com.

— Frank Jossi

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