On Tuesdays and Thursdays, members of the Tooele County Parkinson’s Disease Support Group meet at Tooele Martial Arts Academy for an intense workout. After stretches, they work their core muscles.
Then they put on their boxing gloves.
“Sports Illustrated said boxing is the hardest sport in the world to do,” said Hal Meyer, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003 and now facilitates the support group. “It gives you the best workout, and it’s all about eye-hand coordination.”
The program, called Rock Steady Boxing, originated in 2006 in Indianapolis, Indiana. It aims to help manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which according to the National Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, is a chronic and progressive movement disorder. It involves the malfunction and death of neurons in the brain that produce dopamine, a chemical that controls movement and coordination.
Patients suffer from tremors in the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; slowness of movement; stiffness or rigidity of the limbs and trunk; and impaired balance and coordination. The cause is unknown, there is no current cure, but treatment options help manage the disease.
Putting on a pair of boxing gloves is one of those options.
“There are literally three Rock Steady Boxing programs in the state, and one of them is in Tooele,” said Keith Azbury, owner of Tooele Martial Arts Academy, which is located at 10 S. Garnet St., Building 669, #4 in Tooele.
Azbury learned about Rock Steady boxing from Meyer after a Rock Steady program opened in Lehi. Someone had sent Meyer an email about the Lehi program. He contacted Sherri Bickley, head coach for Rock Steady Boxing on the Wasatch Front, for more information.
“She said she would come out and talk to our Parkinson’s disease support group, which she did,” Meyer said. “She came here and I asked what I needed to do to start a program out here.”
The first task was to locate a gym that could accommodate the program. Meyer asked around about local gyms that offered martial arts training and was told about Tooele Martial Arts Academy. He went to talk to Azbury and asked him if he would be interested in becoming a certified Rock Steady coach.
Azbury said yes.
“A month later the two of us we went down to the class at Lehi,” Meyer said.
In January 2017, Meyer signed up for two spots for Rock Steady certification in Indianapolis. He and Azbury attended the class in June.
“Everybody really liked Keith and he did great, and they were really surprised at me that at 71, I could still do all the training,” Meyer said.
The training took two days to complete. As part of the program, Meyer and Azbury received a cell phone app that acts as continuing education for the Rock Steady program. It includes information on how topics, like helping people get up and down safely as well as several ideas for exercises.
Certification was only the beginning. Meyer said they still had to buy equipment and get starter kits for people who wanted to join the class. Azbury was also completing a summer anti-bullying program for youth.
The local Rock Steady program officially opened last October. Azbury is happy with the improvements that the class is seeing already.
Sharon Vottelberghe, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a year and a half ago, began attending right away. She said she was moving well to begin with but she still enjoyed improvement.
“The last time I went to my doctor, she said I’m moving better now than I have in six months,” Vottelberghe said.
“It’s made it so I can get up off the floor without using a chair,” said Ron Williams, who started the Rock Steady program in November. “I couldn’t do that before I started.”
“My balance has improved,” Meyer said. “Everything works better, and I can get up off the floor a lot easier.”
Azbury said he feels that he was meant to be a teacher.
“The Rock Steady program is my baby,” he said in December. “In just over two months, this is what we’ve created.”
Azbury designs each workout around a theme, like footwork or continual movement. He said Parkinson’s’ disease causes bodies to curl inward. The workouts are meant to help attendees open their bodies again, to think and move reactively, and to live more actively in general.
“Each exercise is modifiable,” he said. “That’s the thing about Rock Steady. It’s getting them into the gym. Even getting to the gym can be a workout.”
“It’s a challenge,” Vottelberghe said. “It’s designed to push you beyond the limits of what you think you can do.”
For most of the attendees, exercises designed to strengthen core muscles and prevent falls are the most difficult to do.
“The balancing exercises are hard,” said Mike Mehringer. “It’s hard to stay standing up.”
The group works out together for about two hours, twice a week. Azbury said a lot of them met at Rock steady boxing.
“Now they’re friends,” he said. “They bounce ideas off each other like information about doctors and how to handle hip problems.”
“It’s nice to be able to have this program where people are getting together and having fun,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the group would like to expand the program, but people with advanced Parkinson’s disease are required to have a cornerman before they can participate. A cornerman protects the patient during exercise from falls and other injuries, offering support and help when it’s needed.
According to Meyer, people with Parkinson’s disease are divided into groups based on how severe their symptoms are. Participants in groups one and two don’t need help for the Rock Steady program, but those in group three might.
“It’s mandatory for people in group four to have a cornerman, or you can’t even be in the program,” Meyer said. “We have at least three other people who want to come, but if we can’t get cornermen for them, we can’t do anything for them.”
He wants to reach out to college students in nursing programs and other programs where being a Rock Steady cornerman might count as an internship. He also said family and friends make great cornermen.
Anyone who is interested in volunteering as a cornerman should contact Azbury at Tooele Martial Arts Academy. Meanwhile, Rock Steady members will be boxing away, and he’ll be helping them manage the disease through exercise.
“We like to say movement is medicine,” he said. “We’re changing lives here.”
For more information on how to join Rock Steady Boxing, call Tooele Martial Arts Academy at 435-882-1212 or go online to tooelemartialartsacademy.com. The cost is $65 per person per month.