Boxing class helps patients pound Parkinson’s

By Molly Horak

“Two minutes!” Walker Peterson roars as the opening verse of Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” blares over the loud speaker.

Greg Gehab grunts, wipes away a drip of sweat with his forearm, then picks up the pace. “One, two, one, two,” he yells back as he strikes the punching bag with all of his strength.

For 120 grueling more seconds, Gehab and the seven other men and women enrolled in Peterson’s Friday morning boxing class attack their bags with a vengeance only the most determined boxers can muster. “Quitting is never an option,” one of the participants muses as the athletes are finally rewarded with a water break at the end of the round.

The Friday morning class isn’t training the participants to fight an opponent under the bright lights of a boxing ring. No, they’re fighting a much more dangerous enemy, the one slowly wearing away at their brains.

This is a Rock Steady Boxing class, a form of physical therapy for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Boxing provides a way to fight back, says Gehab.

Gehab had never heard of Parkinson’s disease, at least not until 2008 when he received the diagnosis that would change his life.

He called his wife, crying. In order for the disease not to kill him, his doctor said, he had to start working out.

A life-interrupting disease

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that occurs when brain neurons that control movement become impaired and die, according to studies conducted by the National Institute of Health. When these neurons die, they produce less of the chemical dopamine, leading to symptoms such as tremors, stiffness of limbs, slowness of movement and impaired balance and coordination.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, which affects more than 10 million individuals worldwide. However, studies have shown that increased high-intensity exercise can slow the progression of the disease by training the brain to use dopamine, which is released during vigorous exercise, more efficiently.

Gehab’s neurologist never told him what sort of exercises to do. After his diagnosis, he began regularly attending his local YMCA in Nashua, New Hampshire, yet didn’t feel like he was getting anything out of his time in the gym.

In 2011, Gehab’s health took a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer was removed, and he entered into remission, but Parkinson’s still plagued him. His workouts weren’t doing much to increase mobility, and his medicines weren’t working. He was losing morale.

Rock Steady heads east

His daughter, who was living in Indianapolis, had heard of a new program designed to help Parkinson’s patients: Rock Steady Boxing.

Skeptical, Gehab caved into his daughter’s pleading and agreed to attend a class.

“They warmed me up doing something like this: running, punches, stretching, core. I thought I was going to die,” Gehab said. “But by the end of the class, I knew I had found what I wanted to do.”

His next goal? To bring Rock Steady to the East Coast.

Gehab completed the certification to become a Rock Steady Boxing coach in 2013. It took him a year, but he finally got one person to participate in his program. From there, the phenomenon spread.

“Everyone laughed at me; they thought I was nuts,” he said. “Boxing helping Parkinson’s patients? They were incredulous. But after working with a boxing coach, he could see how fluid I was, how it was helping.”

When Gehab and his wife moved to Raleigh in 2016, the Triangle became his next target. Within a few months, he had found a home at Title Boxing Club in Cary. The first class had 20 boxers, Gehab recalls. Now, Rock Steady Triangle offers classes in Cary, Raleigh and Chapel Hill and serves over 120 participants.

“Who are we? Rock Steady!”

There’s no such thing as a typical Rock Steady class, said Walker Peterson, a Rock Steady Boxing coach at Title Boxing Club in Chapel Hill. Workouts tend to be slightly slower-paced and more methodical than the classes usually offered but contain the same basic principles: stretches, core work and boxing combinations.

Sets of exercises are structured in the traditional boxing-round format: three minutes of an intense set of exercises followed by a one-minute rest period. Boxers are encouraged to yell out numbered sequences that match the type of punch thrown — one for a left jab, two for a right cross and so on. This help memory and vocal strength, which are common symptoms of the disease.

It’s not a typical workout, Gehab said, but it’s the kind of workout he likes. He needs to be pushed to the point where he doesn’t break.

“I need to do it; I have to do it because first and foremost, I’m a Parkie too,” Gehab said.

In the three years since Rock Steady first opened its doors in the Triangle, it has seen enormous growth, said Jessica Shurer, a clinical social worker and coordinator with the UNC Movement Disorders Center.

The Triangle is uniquely positioned for a vibrant Parkinson’s community. Both Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Schools of Medicine are home to Movement Disorder Clinics designated as a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence, meaning they provide the highest level of care and outreach for Parkinson’s patients, said Diana Parrish, who works with the Parkinson’s Foundation.

Shurer, who worked with Gehab to bring Rock Steady to the area, said she sees patients and focus-group participants have an increased range of movement and stronger relationships after enrolling in a boxing class.

“People really gravitate to the energy of it, the ‘rah-rah’ way to fight not only the bag but their disease,” Shurer said. “There’s this component of friendship and camaraderie that everyone is in this fighting together.”

“Who are we?” Peterson bellows at the crowd jogging laps around the gym floor.

“Rock Steady!” they yell back, their voices wobbly with exhaustion as the workout comes to an end.

“Who are we?” Peterson asks again in a voice tinged with the mix of encouragement and skepticism that only a coach at their peak intensity can summon.

“Rock Steady!” the group says louder, with more energy.

“What do we do?”

“Fight!” The group erupts in a series of grunts, whoops and hollers, a primal release of the frustrations built over the last few days.

In his red tank top emblazoned with the Rock Steady logo and the mantra, “fighter coach,” Gehab pumps his fist in the air a la “Breakfast Club” and smiles.

“I see people come in and have lost their confidence because Parkinson’s can take your confidence away,” Gehab said. “But boxing, it helps bring the confidence back; it gives hope back. You can do things you hadn’t been able to do before.”

“It’s saved my life.”

Edited by Jack Gallop and Sara Hall