The sound of boxing gloves hitting heavy bags is the soundtrack to Monday morning for a dozen boxers at Dynamic MMA in Modesto. Their instructor, Matt Miller, counts down the seconds to the end of the circuit as sweat turns his shirt a darker shade of Navy blue.
"Keep going," Rick Bartkowski tells his wife, Tina MacDonald.
"I am," she says as she focuses on the speed bag above her.
MacDonald was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years ago. She couldn't find an exercise program that worked for her to help slow down the symptoms of the disease until she discovered Rock Steady Boxing during a retreat in Arizona two years ago and was instantly hooked.
Her husband helped bring the program to Dynamic MMA in Modesto after applying for and receiving a $5,000 grant from the National Parkinson's Foundation and Moving Day San Francisco. The money from the grant helped send Miller and Dynamic MMA gym owner Paul Mendoza to Indianapolis to become Rock Steady Boxing certified.
"They educate us on the disease and how to apply what we had already known. Me and Paul were the only ones- I think there was four of us total- who actually went there with boxing training," said Miller. "Everybody else there was on the medical side."
According to the Rock Steady Boxing website 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease every year. The non-profit gym was founded in 2006 by former Marion County prosecutor Scott C. Newman who was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 40.
"It started out with just not being able to write. My writing got real jerky," Mary-Ellen Backman said of her diagnosis 10 years ago. "I went to the doctor and first they said blood pressure tremors and then they did an MRI and it came up that it was Parkinson's. And it's progressed a lot since then."
While a number of boxers at the Modesto gym say they also use the stationary bike to exercise, Rock Steady Boxing challenges participants with ring work, focus mitts, heavy bags, speed bags, double-ended bags, jump rope, core work, calisthenics, circuit weight training and stretching. The exercises attack Parkinson's at its vulnerable neurological points while focusing on overall fitness, strength training, reaction time and balance.
"Even though I still get up slow I'm getting up faster than I did the first day," said Backman. "I can get up by myself, sort of. But there is progression."
Joe Juarez, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's two years ago, had never taken an MMA style fitness class before but would drive from Manteca to Bretwood for his Rock Steady Boxing classes. But now with a location in Modesto, he's able to save money, time, and gas as he continues to fight off symptoms and strengthen his voice which has been weakened by the disease.
"That's why when they do exercises they tell us to count loud," Juarez explained. "I can get in and out of a car better than I used to, my balance is a lot better. I used to feel like I was going to fall so that's a lot better. It seems to be working for me."
The class has adopted a "No Excuses" mantra and targets "forced intense exercise." With the class exclusive to those living with Parkinson's and their spouses who often serve as their "cornerman," Rock Steady Boxing can have participants feeling both strength and vulnerability during the one and a half hour session.
"Once they see that I actually care and that I'm pushing them because I want them to get better then they're all in," said Miller. "It's always emotional. We cry every day. You can't not be emotional when it's real."
Miller has even seen one of his Rock Steady boxers progress so quickly that he's able to take regular boxing classes.
"Knowing that I personally know that if I show you what I know, you'll get better... That's the best part," Miller said as he fought back tears.
While the program originated and is based in Indianapolis, its reach goes far beyond the United States. With programs available throughout Canada, Japan, Sweden, and Italy, Rock Steady Boxing has become a worldwide phenomenon.
There are Rock Steady Boxing programs available in Sacramento, Roseville, Placerville, Lodi, Rancho Cordova, and El Dorado Hills.
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