Packing a punch: Fighting Parkinson’s by boxing

Four months ago, Gary Conant couldn’t tie his own shoe.

The 71-year-old Versailles resident used a walker to help him get around. He struggled to get out of bed, and his usual upbeat and vibrant self battled with depression. His life was filled with discomfort and frustration.

Ten years ago, Parkinson’s disease started robbing him of his mobility. Since then, he’s been taking a combination of drugs to help him regain his stamina and strength. The drugs help treat the symptoms of his tremor but do very little to help restore his movements.

Parkinson’s is a cruel disease that causes a person’s brain to gradually stop producing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The loss of dopamine creates the inability to control your own movements over time.

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The symptoms vary from person to person, but for Conant it started with a slight aggravating tremor in his left hand. With time, it evolved to the point where Conant found himself mowing up a hill, and as he pushed forward, his body could no longer hold him up, causing him to roll over.

“I’ve been active all my life,” he said. “I worked outdoors, and to not be able to do that stuff wears on you for a while. It works on your head.”

Punching the disease

Conant found relief from a decade of suffering when he put on, of all things … boxing gloves.

Conant, who is retired after working outdoors, had never boxed before, but he loved working with his hands. His wife, Pat Conant, was watching “60 Minutes” on TV when she heard about a Rock Steady Program in Indianapolis.

After sharing the news with her husband, Gary and Pat went to seek advice from his doctor who assured them it was a good idea. After looking for a program closer to home, they came across Crossfit Retaliation in Columbus.

The Conants informed their 72-year-old friend Ken Nelson, who has also been living with Parkinson’s disease for a decade.

After assessments by boxing coach Audra McNear (Conant was still using his walker, and Nelson was unable to get out of a chair on his own), they hoped for the best.

Together, they stepped into Jase Robinson’s gym filled with punching bags and speed bags, put on a pair of boxing gloves and started giving Parkinson’s disease a big, bad blow.

The clashing of fists and punching bags mixed with the smell of hard work in the air allowed Nelson to view Rock Steady as more of a workout and less of a rehabilitation.

“There is a different attitude when you come here,” Nelson said. “You come here for a workout. You’re not in a nursing home or something like that. There is a gym feeling here that you’re here to be in a gym.”

The Rock Steady class has seven participants, five of whom are fighting Parkinson’s. They meet three times a week, and each session lasts a little over an hour. Hitting the punching bag every Monday, Wednesday and Friday allows Nelson to tell himself that he is fighting Parkinson’s, so he punches it a little harder.

Like a therapy session

They start every session with laughter and smiles coming from an exercise that requires them to hit balloons at each other with pooling balls. It allows them to work on muscle control and coordination without even realizing it. Robinson said the joy this exercise creates for everybody involved ends up being very therapeutic.

McNear noticed improvements within the first week after realizing Conant abandoned the walker almost immediately after his assessment. After years of limitation, Conant is able to mow the lawn without having to worry about falling over. His movements and coordination are stable enough for him to perform tasks in his own workshop.

“We’ve been coming here for four months now, and in that short period of time I’m able to do things I haven’t done in three or four years,” Conant said. “Being able to recover some of that and do the things you’ve done now is truly a boost.”

The idea of Rock Steady Boxing was created in 2006 by former Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman, who is also living with Parkinson’s disease. Newman was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s when he was 40 years old and started one-on-one boxing sessions to help with his physical health. He started to see drastic improvements in his mobility, which drove him to open a gym of his own for others dealing with the same problem.

In June of this year, Robinson and his partner, McNear, decided to start a Rock Steady Program in Columbus for people living with Parkinson’s.

Robinson said because they feel people are naturally wired to help others, they had an obligation to use their resources to start the program. Not to mention McNear’s family history of Huntington’s disease allowed them to empathize with what Parkinson’s victims are dealing with.

In order to lead the program, McNear had to go through a Rock Steady training, which is based in Indianapolis. There is no requirement for a boxing background, but she wasn’t supposed to start her training until next year. A last-minute dropout allowed her to start her three-day training in June to become certified.

Robinson said the reason why they chose boxing is simply because of the Newman tradition. Regaining mobility can be created from any other sport or activity that requires high power output, agility and full range of motion. The limited motion that takes place form the loss of dopamine can be restored by learning new motions.

Robinson said Parkinson’s disease slows down the motion that your brain and body already has learned, but if you can teach your brain to learn motions that have not been effected yet, then you can begin to perform tasks that were once taken away.

New twist: Running a 10K

The new actions that Nelson began to learn has allowed him to do things that many people without Parkinson’s have trouble doing — run a 10K. Four months of working out has allowed Nelson to enjoy a Thanksgiving morning run with his grandchildren by participating in the 5K on Turkey Day.

“I think it gives me a purpose,” Nelson said. “I don’t have to just get worse. I can fight back. You don’t know what it’s like to sit in a chair and can’t get out of a chair. You’re always picking what chair you can sit in. I no longer do those things because of the exercises.”

Columbus resident Lynn Hobson, who has been living with Parkinson’s for four years, said McNear is a big reason for much of the class’ success. Nelson remembers when Hobson could barely step over a rope. Now he is completing full-blown workouts.

McNear gets to witness the improvement of the boxers first hand and is brought to tears almost every class session.

Hobson enjoys coming to the workouts and said that you could be having a bad day and leave the gym feeling much better. Knowing that there is a class of people fighting the same fight allows them to create a special bond through the exercises.

“I don’t think without the group you would force yourself to strain like that,” Nelson said. “You might just do a few of them and say, “Oh that’s enough.’ But there is a discipline in doing all of it and forcing yourself to do that. I don’t think without the coach and camaraderie of the group you could force yourself to do that.”

Gary enjoys the camaraderie of the group but is extremely grateful for his wife. Pat helped him with many of the exercises early on until Gary was able to complete them on his own. He said she has helped him through it all and if it was not for her, he probably would have never been introduced to the class.

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What: Rock Steady Boxing

When: 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays

Where: Crossfit Retaliation, 1428 10th st., Suite 5A

Cost: $25 for balance assessment and $75 monthly fee

Getting started: To schedule a balance assessment, call 812-343-9237 to make appointment with coach Audra McNear