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Boxing Day

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Keith Young is taking no prisoners. Sweat beads on his forehead as he jabs his gloved fist at his sparring partner. “Jab. Jab. Uppercut. Uppercut. Hook,” urges Dori Billowitch, a physical therapist assistant, as she dances around the center of the room, her body protected by thick padding from the punches Keith levels at her.

Keith may not be the next Muhammed Ali, but the third generation plumber and the late great champion have something more in common than a passion for boxing: Parkinson’s disease. Keith isn’t taking it lying down though. He’s fighting back. Since joining Rock Steady of the Lehigh Valley at Good Shepherd several months ago, Keith is beginning to feel better physically and mentally for the first time in the five years since Parkinson’s highjacked his life.

“For someone like me who’s been very physical my whole life, it was hard to accept (Parkinson’s),” says Keith. “Up until I got this, I was never sick a day in my life.”

The 64-year-old Bethlehem resident does therapeutic swimming and physical therapy through Good Shepherd’s Parkinson’s Wellness Program. When he learned about Rock Steady last winter at a Good Shepherd wellness clinic it appealed to him. “I’m not afraid of exercise so I thought, why not give boxing a shot, and I got hooked,” says Keith.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder that affects 1 million people in the United States. It occurs when nerve cells, or neurons, in an area of the brain that controls movement become impaired or die. Healthy neurons produce the brain chemical dopamine. Impaired neurons produce less dopamine which leads to tremors, slow and unsteady movements, loss of balance, and difficulty speaking.

Keith and his fellow Rock Steady boxers may not give Parkinson’s a knockout punch, there is no cure, but studies have shown increasing physical activity to at least two-and-a-half hours a week slows the decline in quality of life. Boxing and other kinds of intense exercise increases dopamine levels and can slow the progression of the disease. Benefits include improved functional mobility, safety, confidence, and energy levels. Learning a new task also leads to the development of new neuronal connections (neuroplasticity).

Rock Steady Boxing uses professional boxing techniques adapted to people with Parkinson’s. The regimen includes lateral foot work, bag punching, stretching, resistance exercises, and aerobic training. The program began in Indianapolis in 2006 by Scott C. Newman, a prosecutor who developed Parkinson’s, and has spread to more than 50 gyms worldwide. Newman began taking intense, one-on-one boxing lessons and discovered significant improvements in his physical health, agility and daily functioning.

Rock Steady Boxing’s mission and message are simple: If you have Parkinson’s, you are not alone. For people with the disease, that’s a powerful message of hope. Camaraderie is one of the binding forces that brings people like Keith back to class week after week, helping keep depression on the ropes.

“For four years I battled depression and lacked energy to do anything,” says Keith. “This (Rock Steady) helps with morale because it’s a lonely world out there when you have Parkinson’s and everybody’s looking at you.”

Part drill sergeants, part coaches, part comedians, Dori and her partner Ryan Macalintal are both certified Rock Steady coaches. They also bring to the boxing ring qualifications that make Good Shepherd’s program even more impressive. Dori is LSVT-BIG certified, specializing in large functional movement therapy for people with Parkinson’s and Ryan is an ACSM certified exercise physiologist (ACSM-EP-C) and is Functional Movement Screen (FMS) certified.

Rock Steady was launched at Good Shepherd in February and is the only one in the Lehigh Valley region. About 15 people are enrolled in the twice-weekly sessions that begin with a dynamic warm up and core-strengthening balancing exercises.

“Are you steady?” Dori asks Keith who is struggling to stay balanced on a BOSU ball.

“I’m as steady as I’ll ever be,” he says. “Believe it or not, I used to surf, California, Hawaii. I used to have good balance.”

After warming up, participants move to another room and the boxing circuit. A computerized program sounds a bell and participants begin working out at different stations in one-minute intervals before moving to the next station.

Equipment includes a mannequin named “Bob” who gets pummeled, punching bags, kettle bells and a 60-pound leather bag with handles that participants flip from one end of the room to the other. Dori and Ryan keep the pace brisk, cutting slack only when absolutely needed. Even vocal muscles get a workout.

“Come on! I can’t hear you!” Dori yells, encouraging her boxers to call out their punches. It all works together because Parkinson’s, she explains, makes everything a little smaller, slower and quieter.

“The brain sends a signal to do something and they feel like they’re moving their arm but then realize it’s not moving as much as it used to, so there’s your smaller,” she says. “Reactions also change, so there’s your slower which leads to stiffness. And the voice is a muscle that gets softer with Parkinson’s. It’s use it or lose it. So there’s your quieter.”

Humor is an important part of the program at Good Shepherd and laughter creates a lively and fun atmosphere that helps motivate people to keep pushing through the challenging 90-minute class.

“Anybody have any plans this weekend?” asks Dori.

“I’m getting an MRI,” deadpans Pat Cray, a petite 74-year-old from Allentown who joined Rock Steady in May.

At five-feet tall and about 103 pounds, Pat hardly looks like the rock ‘em, sock ‘em type, but she can pack a punch. Pat became interested in adding Rock Steady to her already vigorous exercise program after watching a CBS “Sunday Morning” piece on the program when she was living in Pittsburgh and saw women participating.

“I was not into athletics. I was more into the arts in school,” says Pat. “Boxing doesn’t come second nature to me but I thought why not give it a try. I didn’t really care what it was. If it were hanging from a rope from the ceiling and if that would do the trick, I probably would do that too!”

After moving to Allentown in 2015, Pat was thrilled to learn that Good Shepherd offered Rock Steady and she wouldn’t have to travel to Philadelphia or New York. It’s been too soon for Pat to know if the boxing is having any effect on her Parkinson’s, but she’s grateful for the program and Dori and Ryan’s motivational leadership.

“The quality of the instruction is excellent,” says Pat. “They obviously know what they’re doing and they do their best to change it up for us so we’re not doing exactly the same thing every time. They work to keep it interesting for us. They work us hard, but I think that’s their job.”

Keith enjoys not only the workout but the friendships. “We’re kind of a tight group in the sense that we worry about each other if someone doesn’t show up,” he says. “We talk about what’s going on in our lives, what’s bothering us, what aches today. You don’t feel like you’re the only person in the world with this disease.”

Keith says he feels like his walking has improved and his core is stronger. “I feel really good,” he says. “I get a little upset because I can’t do what I used to do and Dori knows I get frustrated. But she’ll say, ‘Do the best you can.’ They understand our limitations and alter the exercises, and we horse around, laugh and joke. It’s nice to laugh. That’s good therapy also.

“I thank the Lord for Good Shepherd Rehabilitation that they’re there for people like me who need help. I’m trying to move forward as are we all.”