Terry Aossey and Dave Mumford are two area residents fighting back against Parkinson’s disease (PD) in a program called Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) at the Bob Freesen YMCA.
As a writer, I am supposed to remain objective when covering a story, but I have to tell you, when you hear these stories, watch these classes and see the determination in each person’s face as he or she makes contact with the bag, you cannot remain objective. You sit in admiration of their courage and determination to come out swinging every day against this disease.
We will put this in steps similar to the Rock Steady Classes.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative movement disorder that can cause deterioration of motor skills, balance, speech, cognitive decline, and sensory function. Many with PD also have other health concerns such as hypertension, cardiac history, breathing issues, or diabetes.
The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates there are more than 1 million people in the United States diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and more than 60,000 new cases are diagnosed annually.
Aossey, who served as a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army from 1966-1969, says, “No one in my family ever had Parkinson’s. They say mine is from Agent Orange, but it took 50 years for it to catch up with me.”
FIRST STEP – WALK IN
Each of these Rock Steady Boxing fighters has taken the diagnosis one step further and chosen action by taking it to the YMCA, having an assessment done by certified Rock Steady Boxing Instructor Amy Little and beginning the Rock Steady Boxing class.
“Everybody else here has the same problem you have,” says Aossey. “Maybe it affects a different area of their body, but we’ve all got Parkinson’s Disease in common.”
RSB exercises are largely adapted from boxing drills. Boxers condition for optimal agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength to defend against and overcome opponents. But this boxing is non-contact, and this is a different ring.
This ring is life. With Rock Steady Boxing, PD is the opponent. RSB’s mission is to empower people with PD to “fight back.” The first boxing program of its kind in the country, RSB was founded in 2006 by former Marion County, Indiana Prosecutor, Scott C. Newman, who is living with Parkinson’s.
CAMARADERIE WITH YOUR FELLOW FIGHTERS
Program participants are a variety of ages. Coach, friend and mentor Little, is there to teach and encourage. As an RSB instructor, Little has a deep knowledge of PD. She helps her fighters work on specific skills to improve footwork, coordination, and strength as well as sharpening cognitive skills and understands the hesitation some participants feel. She knows that stretching, building strength, and agility all help with motor control and building new brain connections can help to slow the progression of PD.
“People come and learn they are not alone in this,” says Little. “Classes are Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, four times each day to keep the class sizes small with everyone masked, distanced and safe during the Coronavirus pandemic.” Amy is fantastic. She’s the best motivator I’ve ever seen,” said Aossey. “And she makes you enjoy it.”
Program participants have bad days along with better days. But you would never know it was a bad day by how hard either were fighting to keep PD at bay through punching that boxing bag! “Yes, some days I dread it,” says Aossey, “but once you’re here, you’re happy to be here. I lost my voice for three months and had no voice. When I first came here just hollering out stuff was difficult. I did speech therapy with Jill at the hospital and that helped. But this helps me each week to remember to use it.”
Mufford agrees. “My wife, Mary, is always telling me, ‘Speak up I can’t hear you.’ You feel like you are yelling, but you’re not. Amy is always telling us to ‘call it out’ so that reminds us to speak up!”
“Parkinson’s can be a very isolating and discouraging disease,” says Little. “Some people tend to want to withdraw and avoid social situations. But that is the worst thing they can do! Parkinson’s is, unfortunately, very widespread, so they are far from alone. Exercise is one of the absolute best things people can do to help with Parkinson’s symptoms. Not only will it help them functionally, but it helps slow the progression and it creates a neurological protective response to the dopamine cell structure that protects and reduces the breakdown of the cell walls which helps them feel better mentally and emotionally.”
ROCK STEADY BOXING CLASS
Each class begins when fighters walk into the room and coach Little asks how each participant is doing that day and if anyone is having any issues she should know about. Once all participants arrive, the class sits in chairs and later moves to the bar for their warmups which are intended to both get them physically and mentally ready for class. After warmups, the gloves come out and the fighters are moved to their assigned punching bag. Little shouts out a combination of numbers corresponding with specific punches (a right cross, left jab, or right uppercut) and presses a timer. Boxers yell out the numbers as they punch their boxing bags until a bell rings, notifying boxers to stop that round of moves. Then they reset and begin with another set of combinations with short breaks between each set.
“It is exhausting,” Aossey says of the 75-minute-class, “but it helps tremendously. You can see it in all the other students too. I used to walk like the ‘old man’ shuffle that Tim Conway did. Now I remember I have to walk and swing my arms and take big steps.”
“We have fun along with it,” says Mufford “From the time I walk in the door, I’m kind of down a little bit, but when I leave, I’m feeling a lot better. It has helped with my balance and strength. It makes a big difference! You have to have a lot of upper body strength because you find out you use your upper body more than you do your legs a lot of time. I still do the PD shuffle, but I’m conscious of it now and I can correct it.”
At Christmas, Aossey says his family gave him a punching bag at home to help him keep up his boxing. “I love my ‘ones’ and ‘twos’, which are the jabs and crosses. They are my best punches,” he says. And during class, I saw him really knock that punching bag around the room, especially with those punches!
“Boxing is a great stress reliever and it really builds you up,” says Mufford. “You use a lot of muscles in your back and shoulders you didn’t even know you had.”
“You have to remember the footwork too,” adds Aossey.” You have to multi task with your arms and legs and use your voice at the same time to shout out the numbers.”
THE COOL DOWN
Mufford goes on to say, “I am doing as much as I can, I call my wife my caretaker. I don’t want to put a big load on her. That is an incentive for me to come to a class and to try to do what I can do while I can still do it.”
“My wife Carol used to just come on Tuesdays, but now she comes all three days,” says Aossey. “And she exercises along with me. She says she can see the improvement.” Then he laughs and adds humorously, “after 54 years I hope I have some improvement.”
KEEP COMING BACK TO CLASS
If you have PD this is the place to be,” says Aossey. “My neurologist has been in awe over the last year-and-a-half to two years, I haven’t changed my medications at all. He can’t believe how well I’m walking either.”
Mufford says, “We are one big family. We are very supportive of each other.”
Little emphasized, “I just think it’s so important to get the message out about Rock Steady Boxing being so much more than “just an exercise class” and to break that stigma/fear that has so many with PD sitting at home!”
To participate in the class, participants must have a confirmed diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease before an assessment that Little does before participation in the first class.
If you or someone you know has PD, they can fight back by coming to Rock Steady Boxing classes and hitting Parkinson’s where it counts!