In this boxing class, the fight is against Parkinson's disease

  • Dennis O'Malley of St. Charles works on mitt drills with coach Judi Andersen during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson's disease.

      Dennis O'Malley of St. Charles works on mitt drills with coach Judi Andersen during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson's disease. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Jim McCullough of St. Charles takes a break between exercises at Eastside Recreation Center in Elgin.

      Jim McCullough of St. Charles takes a break between exercises at Eastside Recreation Center in Elgin. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Jim McCullough of St. Charles, center, hits a heavy bag during a Rock Steady Boxing class at the Eastside Recreation Center in Elgin.

      Jim McCullough of St. Charles, center, hits a heavy bag during a Rock Steady Boxing class at the Eastside Recreation Center in Elgin. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Teresa Muir pounds the heavy bag in the corner of the Elgin gym, working up a sweat with each punch.

At 61, her red hair in a ponytail, the easygoing flute teacher is the antithesis of a boxer. And on this afternoon, she's the only woman training at the Eastside Recreation Center.

"They treat me like one of the guys," she says.

The sounds of Muir and a dozen or so men striking the bags compete with the 1967 Four Tops song "Reach Out I'll Be There" blasting in the gym.

None of them are getting ready to step into the ring. Instead, they are preparing for another kind of fight: They all have Parkinson's disease.

The group exercises together as part of the Rock Steady Boxing class to try to slow the progression of the neurodegenerative disorder, to feel less powerless against an incurable disease.

"It saved my life. It really did, because I can function in daily life, and you have a reason to put up with Parkinson's," Muir says.

They end the class, gathered in a circle, chanting their shared mantra: "Fight Back."

Teresa Muir, right, has been working out through Rock Steady Boxing for more than five years. "You actually forget you have Parkinson's when you're here even though you're with a whole bunch of people who have Parkinson's because you feel better," the Geneva woman says.
  Teresa Muir, right, has been working out through Rock Steady Boxing for more than five years. "You actually forget you have Parkinson's when you're here even though you're with a whole bunch of people who have Parkinson's because you feel better," the Geneva woman says. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
'Moving better'

A concert flutist in the DuPage Symphony Orchestra, Muir knew something was wrong about a decade ago when she was playing the solo from "The Nutcracker Suite."

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"I couldn't play it, and I had always been able to play it my whole life. It just went," the Geneva woman says.

"The fingers just wouldn't fire."

A breast cancer survivor, Muir was losing her musicianship because of Parkinson's, a central nervous system disorder characterized by tremors, balance issues or slow, rigid movements. At a brain level, it causes the progressive loss of nerve cells that make a chemical called dopamine.

Although there is no cure, research has consistently shown the benefits of exercise, says Dr. Martha McGraw, a movement disorder specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.

"With regular exercise, you may be able to slow the loss of those cells," McGraw says. "And with very rigorous exercise, you may even help the brain build new networks around damaged areas and therefore really improve a patient's motor function and quality of life."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

McGraw always tells her patients the best form of exercise for Parkinson's is the one they'll do. But she highly recommends Rock Steady, a no-contact boxing class.

"Any type of exercise is good, but certain programs really stand out as far as the effects we see on our patients' lives, and Rock Steady is one of those," McGraw says. "It's a very comprehensive program.

"They work on footwork and reflexes and leg strength, but also upper body strength and motor control, so patients come away really having had a very thorough workout."

With sessions in Glen Ellyn and Elgin, Rock Steady Boxing Chicago began in 2013 as the first Illinois affiliate of the nonprofit organization started in Indianapolis by a former prosecutor with Parkinson's.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I have patients who will schedule everything around their Rock Steady class," McGraw says.

She also has patients who are 10 years into the disease and still doing Rock Steady. Another patient who had lost his motivation and energy "blossomed" with a regimen that's changing perceptions about what it means to live with a degenerative disease.

"I think he felt empowered," McGraw says. "He saw himself in a different way, sort of a stronger person ... (who) had a role to play in maintaining his own health."

Muir hardly saw herself as a boxer and exercised only begrudgingly, but her doctor suggested she try the class in 2014, about a year after her diagnosis.

"My husband noticed a difference within two weeks from taking the class. He said, 'My face perked up. I was moving better.'"

Muir stopped shuffling. Her sleep problems and her balance improved.

"Balance is probably the thing I notice the most," she says. "Instead of falling, I can actually catch myself."

Ray Herrick, 66, has Parkinson's disease and stays fit through Rock Steady Boxing sessions. "My posture has improved by being in this program," he says. "You can get hunched over with Parkinson's and short-stepped, and I'm very intentional because of this program."
  Ray Herrick, 66, has Parkinson's disease and stays fit through Rock Steady Boxing sessions. "My posture has improved by being in this program," he says. "You can get hunched over with Parkinson's and short-stepped, and I'm very intentional because of this program." - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
Strength and hope

Ray Herrick, 66, is the genteel former CEO of a trade association who lives in Algonquin, wears round glasses and looks more like a golfer than a boxer. And yet he shows up three times a week to the Elgin gym.

It has no frills: a picture of Muhammad Ali on one wall, the ring in the center of the gym.

"It gives me more strength physically," says Herrick, who learned he had Parkinson's about five years ago. "It gives me more hope. And it helps me to persevere."

Coaching the classes is a "labor of love" for Mark Andersen, who left a corporate job to become a certified Rock Steady instructor when the affiliate was in its infancy. Back then there were three boxers; now there are more than 100 in 18 classes a week between the Glen Ellyn and Elgin gyms.

"We see miracles every week," Andersen says.

"We like to say we're not a support group, but we are," Rock Steady Boxing instructor Mark Andersen says of the exercise program exclusively for people with Parkinson's.
  "We like to say we're not a support group, but we are," Rock Steady Boxing instructor Mark Andersen says of the exercise program exclusively for people with Parkinson's. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

He's also a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer, triathlete and yoga instructor, so he focuses on stretching, coordination, core work and posture in the hourlong, "boxing-inspired" workouts.

"The intensity is what is really important for this population," Andersen says. "Getting the heart rates up helps with dopamine uptake."

Before someone begins Rock Steady, Andersen assesses their symptoms and fitness to assign them to one of three levels of the program. People in their 40s through their early 80s have taken the class, says Andersen's wife, Judi, a St. Charles physical therapist.

"I'm very cognizant of everyone in the room and what their capabilities are," her husband says.

Andersen doesn't call it a support group, but in many ways it is.

"If their hands are shaking, no one is looking at them and judging them," he says.

"I look forward to this, and I never used to look forward to anything forced exercise," says Lin Stacey, a Rock Steady boxer who has Parkinson's disease.
  "I look forward to this, and I never used to look forward to anything forced exercise," says Lin Stacey, a Rock Steady boxer who has Parkinson's disease. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
'A huge difference'

Lin Stacey keeps up with Rock Steady classes three times a week and lifts weights when he's not boxing. On the first day of every month, he goes out to lunch with Rock Steady boxers.

"I call it an endorphins release," says Stacey, who taught science for 35 years at St. Charles middle schools. "I've done something for myself. The camaraderie with the guys is awesome, and I never thought that was going to happen."

That group dynamic -- the friendships and the motivation they inspire in each other -- leaves Muir with tears in her eyes.

"The people in this class make such a huge difference," she says. "It actually chokes you up."

Muir gives another example of how it's made a difference in her life: About two years ago, she went to Home Depot to get potting soil. She lifted the heavy bags into the cart, and at checkout, store employees asked if she needed help.

Her response? "No, I box."

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