The Indy Gym Punching Back At Parkinson’s

The contactless exercises at this gym help slow the advance of the disease and keep boxers in the fight longer.
Photo courtesy Rock Steady Boxing

There’s a gym in Indianapolis with a unique purpose: combating Parkinson’s disease. The disease is a chronic and progressive neurological disorder affecting the nervous system. It usually starts in the form of small tremors and then advances to loss of automatic movements, which is why for many, a diagnosis can feel like a death sentence. But founder of Rock Steady Boxing and former Marion County prosecutor Scott Newman wanted to fight back against Parkinson’s, literally.

Newman was first diagnosed with the disease at age 40 shortly after trying a difficult case. “He slammed his hand down for effect during the trial, and his thumb started to twitch,” says Christine Timberlake, director of training and education at Rock Steady Boxing headquarters. “His diagnosis was later confirmed, and he wanted to fight back through exercise, in addition to taking medication. But exercise was not really considered a treatment back then.”

Photo courtesy Rock Steady Boxing

Newman took it upon himself to collaborate with Golden Gloves boxer, Vince Perez. Together, they created a non-contact boxing and workout routine that would help Newman with his condition. Today, what started out as a project in Newman’s basement has grown into a thriving nonprofit headquartered in Indianapolis with 850 affiliate locations around the globe. Each is run independently and offers different settings, from senior living facilities to aerobics rooms, where those with Parkinson’s can literally “punch back” at the disease.

The gym was a novel approach to treating the disease. When Rock Steady Boxing first opened in 2006, there weren’t very many scientific studies proving that certain exercises could make a difference in the progression of Parkinson’s. “Those were what I like to call the dark ages [of] Parkinson’s,” recalls Timberlake. It was around this time that her own husband was diagnosed at the age of 36.

Photo courtesy Rock Steady Boxing

“We looked at all the research, and we determined we should move closer to a medical facility in preparation for his inevitable disability,” she explains. He declined very rapidly because for six years, he had been urged to avoid physical activities. “We were told basically: Be careful. You’ll fall down. Your balance will not be the same. You could get dizzy.”

Then Timberlake heard about Rock Steady Boxing. “When he first started, I cautiously watched from the sidelines.” But gradually during sessions, she saw her husband start to feel better, want to get back into life, and sit up straighter. “I couldn’t deny what I was seeing—I am a hard sell because I was being very protective of him,” she says. “But this was working. It was the only thing that had been added to his regimen. And then his neurologist took notice, and I knew the exercises were helping.”

Timberlake’s story isn’t an isolated experience. While exercise doesn’t cure the disease, recent studies cited by the gym show that exercise can slow the progression of Parkinson’s and keep brain cells healthy. “A large percentage of people are now being told to exercise as part of their treatment plan.”

Photo courtesy Rock Steady Boxing

In fact, when Jessica Eckelbarger was diagnosed in 2019 at age 40, her doctor handed her a brochure for the gym. “I came to observe a week later,” she says. A month after that, she started taking classes. When the gym closed during the Pandemic, she realized how much the community she gained there mattered to her. She quit her job and started working as a coach at the gym after earning a personal training certificate.

All the coaches at Rock Steady are trained in working with special populations and making modifications for those individuals. “It’s not just about standing in front of a heavy bag and throwing punches,” says Timberlake. “We really want to make sure they are getting the appropriate exercise, appropriate intensity, and modifications of exercise depending on their particular diagnosis and comorbidities.” The gym also uses neuromotor training and dual tasking for clients because those are Parkinson’s specific exercises that help slow the disease’s progression.

According to the coaches at Rock Steady, people of all levels of mobility, including those who are wheelchair-bound, and of all ages, genders, and needs show progress in going from doing basic movements to being able to complete whole exercises.

Photo courtesy Rock Steady Boxing

The changes Eckelbarger’s seen in her students and herself at the gym are undeniable. “It’s amazing to see what they can do after a month,” she says. “Their quality of life improves. They are getting up from a chair without help. Some can walk without relying on a cane as much.” Of her own abilities, Eckelbarger says her coordination and balance have improved, “and I haven’t had to increase my medication in years.”

Timberlake’s husband has lived with Parkinson’s for 24 years and keeps up with his exercises every week. “People with Parkinson’s need to know that it is very possible that with proper disease management, you can live a long and healthy life despite the disease,” says Timberlake. “It’s not always going to be easy. It’s a lifetime commitment.”