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Punching out Parkinson’s: Local gym hosts class that helps fight disease

In the blue corner, hailing from Lebanon and coming in at 67 years old, we have Melpha Coleman. And in the red corner, from Brownsville and coming in at 76 years old, we have Alan Levine.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Rock Steady Boxing!

Head Coach Kelly Becker, DPT, is relentless with her group of seniors as she pushes them to hit a punching bag with all their strength. Her boxing program for people with Parkinson’s leaves little room for apathy.

Becker’s Rock Steady Boxing, located in Lebanon, celebrated its one-year anniversary this month, weighing in with 20 members since its inception. Today, participants come from Lebanon and the surrounding areas of Salem, Albany, Tangent, Silverton, Stayton, Brownsville, Crawfordsville and Sweet Home.

Becker, a physical therapist at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, personally witnessed the effects of the disease in her grandmother, who passed away while Becker was earning her degree in physical therapy.

“I saw many of the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s greatly affect her life, including falling frequently,” Becker said. “I was not able to share with my grandma all the things I know now about helping people with Parkinson’s, but I am fortunate now to be able to create an environment that so greatly impacts people with Parkinson’s.”

Since she founded RSB  in Lebanon at the CrossFit Pink Rhino, 600 S. Main St., Becker witnessed improvements in her clients’ balance, posture, flexibility and physical endurance, and she said they “come alive.” Some have reduced the use of their walking aids, gained “tremendous power” in their punches, and have louder voices.

Jan Bentz, from Stayton, said when she started 10 months ago, she struggled with getting in and out of the car and bed, and she couldn’t jump. Today, she can function in those areas much better, and has been able to do jump ropes and jumping jacks.

Larry Bowman, from Brownsville, had trouble with the same day-to-day functions as Bentz.

“What we really noticed with this, of all the things we’ve done in the past 12 or 15 years, this is the one thing that has transferred to daily life,” said Karen Bowman, Larry’s wife. “You just start moving normally again.”

Larry was diagnosed about 12 or so years ago, and is happy with the program.

“It’s a wonderful program,” he said. “After about two weeks of this stuff, I could see some changes. We’re like a big team; a lot of support out there.”

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative movement disorder which can cause deterioration of motor skills, balance, speech and sensory function.

The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates there are more than one million people in the United States diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and more than 60,000 people are diagnosed each year.

Many studies now suggest intense exercise may potentially slow the progression of the disease, Becker said. Currently there is no medication available that can change the progression of Parkinson’s.

“Exercise is it,” she said. “This is truly amazing to be able to take control of your health and this disease in this way.”

Parkinson’s also causes people to withdraw from their usual activities, and depression can affect as many as 50 percent of people with Parkinson’s, Becker said.

“Parkinson’s has an insidious way of taking away people’s personality and passion for life,” she said. “What we see in this program is people coming out of their shells, laughing, moving and engaging in life. Most powerful of all, I have seen people gain hope.”

Becker first heard about Rock Steady Boxing in 2015 when a colleague showed a video about the program that uses boxing techniques to combat the disease. The nonprofit began in 2006 in Indiana as the first gym in the country dedicated to fight Parkinson’s.

“The concept was phenomenal to me and seemed like it had so many great aspects to help people with Parkinson’s,” Becker said.

She immediately wanted to start the program in Lebanon, but had to wait a year for training in Indiana, she said. In the meantime, Becker started a specialized therapy program at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital called LSVT BIG.

“You do everything in exaggerated movements – big movements and big steps, everything big,” said Shirley Harvey, of Salem, who joined Becker’s BIG program and moved into RSB when it started.

“I was starting to have trouble from this tremor of not being able to do my hair, or get the seat belt fastened, or even stir when I cook, and I was having trouble with scissor cutting,” she said.

Now, Harvey said, she can do all those things “just fine,” and attributes her success to Becker.

“I would support Kelly in any way, the classes and what she’s done. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her,” she said, tearing up a bit.

The boxing workout involves both body and mind, addressing many of the issues and symptoms associated with Parkinson’s, Becker said.

Many with the disease experience bradykinesia, a slowness of movement. To counteract this, Becker’s boxing drills focus on speed, footwork and agility to help her clients take bigger steps to counteract a shuffled gait and balance issues associated with Parkinson’s, she said. The drills also promote mental focus and visual tracking, postural exercise, extensive stretching, and hand coordination activities.

These exercises help with everyday activities such as screwing in a light bulb, getting up from a chair, or getting up and down from the floor. All of those are examples of abilities that many with Parkinson’s lose.

Becker is inspired by how exercise positively affects people with Parkinson’s, she said. Not only does RSB address nearly all of the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but it also has a “huge fun factor.”

“There is something so empowering about putting on boxing gloves and having it out with a heavy bag,” Becker said.

People with Parkinson’s can also find their voice becomes softer over time, and they end up speaking less, she said.

“I have worked with some people that are essentially unable to talk or communicate because of Parkinson’s,” she said. “It is always important for people with Parkinson’s to seek individualized treatment for such symptoms through speech therapy, but at RSB we encourage people to use their voices throughout the workouts.”

Becker starts every session with a question of the day to encourage participants to project their voice. They are also encouraged to cheer on the other participants, and sometimes Becker asks them to shout affirmations or do silly things like make animal noises.

“Beyond the physical improvements, this program promotes a sense of community, fun, and hope, which is often more important,” she said.

Most participants, called “fighters,” show up every week with a cornerman, often a family member, who safely assists the fighter through a workout that includes stretches, spotting for balance, demonstrating exercises, assisting in understanding class instructions and giving lots of positive encouragement.

Maria Buttram is cornerman for her father, Gary Bonham.

When he moved to Albany from Florida, Bonham was confined to a wheelchair. His wife, Dorothy, said doctors had been treating him for Lewy body disease – a disease associated with dementia – and were giving him all sorts of medications, but didn’t encourage him to pursue treatment for Parkinson’s.

Buttramwasn’t willing to accept her father’s decline, and believed the doctors’ opinions were incorrect. Within a year, he went from golfing several days a week to not being able to get out of his chair, she said.

“He was dying,” she said.

So Buttram moved her parents to Oregon and set him up with Becker’s physical therapy program. After that, “everything fell into place,” Dorothy said.

Gary no longer uses his wheelchair, and can carry a conversation better than before, she said.

“It’s pretty tough, but it works,” Gary said. “I got a little more spunk.”

“It’s camaraderie. It’s friendship. It’s a support group,” Dorothy said. “It’s a lot of things all rolled into one.”

Many of the participants in the class are quick to praise Becker for her enthusiasm and investment in their lives, but Becker feels she’s the one who’s blessed by them.

“My experience with people with Parkinson’s as a whole is that they are the kindest, most generous and inspiring people I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” Becker said.

She sees it every day in class as she watches her clients help each other. They help put on the boxing gloves, cheer each other on, contact each other when they’re not in class, put on celebrations for one another, and donate money to support boxers who can’t afford the cost of the class.

“They are just phenomenal, and my life is better for working with them.”

THE ATMOSPHERE tends to be fun as Parkinson’s boxers and their “corner” people work out during a recent session at RSB.

KELLY BECKER, center, speaks to Rock Steady Boxing participants during a session that included a celebration of the one-year anniversary of RSB’s founding in Lebanon.