Four times a week, 62-year-old Mary Yeamer hits the Rock Steady Boxing Gym, where she gets a good dose of Parkinson's treatment by punching bags, jumping rope and boxing with the best of them. She revels in the explosive exercise.
"I loved it right away," said Yeaman, who lives in Indianapolis. "I never did like boxing, but now, I just love it."
When Yeaman was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in October 2002, she didn't know a lot about it. After learning about Rock Steady, Yeaman said she found a great workout that increased her balance and diminished her brain fog. It also helped her build camaraderie with other Parkinson's disease patients.
After almost four years as a Rock Steady member, Yeaman often assists the trainers during classes.
"We have this dummy called 'Parky,'" said Yeaman. "And sometimes I'll see some of the newer students just giving it a little tap, and then I'll say, 'Pretend that he gave you Parkinson's,' and they just start going to town."
Rock Steady Boxing Foundation was co-founded in 2006 by Scott C. Newman, a former prosecutor and public safety director, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's at age 40, and his friend and former Golden Gloves boxer Vincent Perez.
Soon after the men began their intense one-on-one no-contact training sessions, Newman saw and felt a dramatic change in his Parkinson's symptoms and overall physical health -- an ironic twist since boxing has been linked to dementia, Alzheimer's disease and even Parkinson's.
Private donations allowed Newman and Perez to open a small gym specifically for Parkinson's disease patients.
Kristy Follmer, a former professional boxer who is now the head trainer at Rock Steady, said the gym's popularity grew quickly as Newman, Perez and Follmer created specific workouts for Parkinson's patients at different levels of the illness.
Now, the gym has about 170 members, who range in age from 30 to 90. The board of directors and trainers recently relocated Rock Steady to accommodate its growing clientele.
Saturday marked the grand opening of its newest gym, a 2,400-square-foot space that is a part of Peak Performance Fitness Center, a 20,000-foot facility in Indianapolis.
"We were all made to be used to our fullest, and building this gym together is a way for us to do that," said Newman at the grand opening.
As the gym continues to grow, the trainers continue to create workouts specific to the severity of symptoms.
"We have a modified curriculum for people who need an intense regimen to those who need one-on-one attention," said 30-year-old Follmer. "We don't turn anybody away at the door. We meet at their level and do the best we can with any level of Parkinson's. We have a place for everybody."
Parkinson's disease is a motor system disorder in which patients experience tremors in the hands, arms, legs jaw and face, stiffness in their limbs and trunk, slowness in movement and impaired balance and coordination. According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, as many as 1 million Americans live with Parkinson's disease, and approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with it each year. Parkinson's is chronic and currently has no cure.
Follmer said that boxing is one of the most intense types of physical exercise that an athlete can endure. By focusing on different methodologies in one workout, including cardiovascular and strength training, agility, footwork and hand-eye coordination, trainers create a well-rounded training pattern to combat Parkinson's symptoms.
"Exercise of all kinds, in particular ones that focus on balance, aerobic conditioning and strengthening, has been shown beneficial for individuals with PD to promote general wellness and health, maintain functional independence, reduce the risk of fall and enhance psychological health," said Dr. David Cifu, medical director of the Rehabilitation and Research Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Because it is a no-contact program, the risks to patients are the same as with any other therapeutic exercise program, said Dr. Mark Stacy, professor of neurology at Duke University Medical Center.
"I assume this program is designed to help patients with balance, agility and physical strength and stamina," said Stacy. "We could all benefit from that."
Follmer said that the trainers constantly mix up the exercising, which creates muscle confusion that can benefit the strength training and balance Parkinson's patients need. For patients with more severe symptoms, trainers stand beside them to lessen the risk of falls.
"They're always moving from station to station," said Follmer. "It's very fun, and they're never going to become bored because we change workouts as much as possible, and we're constantly bringing in new exercises."
Follmer said that she grew up watching fights with her dad, who was a huge boxing fan. After her father died when she was 13 years old, things changed for her.
"I was an angry teen after that," recalled Follmer. "My mom bought me a heavy bag to vent my stress, and when I'd get upset, I'd just pummel the bag. I fell in love with the explosive nature of hitting that bag."
When she left for college at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Follmer joined a free boxing gym and learned that students had earned boxing scholarships through the fitness center.
After a two-year stint as an amateur boxer, Follmer turned professional in 2002 and went on to win three world championship titles.
While Follmer participated in full-contact fights, trainers and directors of Rock Steady emphasize that none of their workouts are violent in nature.
And interestingly, many doctors have suggested that the great heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, has Parkinson's disease caused, at least in part, from boxing.
"In the case of Mr. Ali, it remains possible that his disease was either caused by or exacerbated by boxing," said Tuszynski. "But … if there are no head blows and no regular falling, then I would not be concerned about this in Parkinson's patients."
The workouts are not, however, easy.
"We try to implement the idea of very tough love," said Follmer. "We want to push these people harder and beyond their perceived limits. But we are aware when too much is too much."
Follmer said the trainers learn as much as they can about the members' conditions and limitations before they start the program.
"We see people get so much stronger, and keep that strength," said Follmer. "Or their symptoms will plateau instead of going on a downward spiral."
Follmer was still competing professionally when she started creating workouts for Parkinson's patients at Rock Steady -- she trained side by side with members.
"It was very humbling and inspirational to go through the training alongside people with Parkinson's," said Follmer. "They pushed me as much as I pushed them. I had no excuse. As I trained for a championship, they trained just as hard to feel better and live longer."
Follmer and the rest of the staff at Rock Steady now look forward to expanding the program beyond Indianapolis.
As for Follmer, she said her boxing mentality has completely changed since her experience with Rock Steady.
"We fight for love and we fight for life now," said Follmer. "I don't think I could turn that violent switch on ever again."