Wilmington gym lets people duke it out with Parkinson’s disease

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Parkinson's can't slow Tom Collins (right) down as he prepares to go southpaw on Rock Steady Boxing co-owner and trainer Mike Wilson (left). (Photograph Benjamin Schachtman)
Parkinson’s can’t slow Tom Collins (right) down as he prepares to go southpaw on Rock Steady Boxing co-owner and trainer Mike Wilson . (Photograph by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — In a small gym off Market Street, a handful of older men are boxing while rock and roll music blares.

This is Rock Steady Boxing, a very different kind of physical therapy for men and women with Parkinson’s disease.

Mike Wilson, who runs the Wilmington chapter, told Port City Daily the loud music is the first thing people notice.

“Everyone says something about the music, and people will ask us to turn it down. But, it’s intentional,” Wilson said. “Parkinson’s affects the voice, from the muscles in the jaw to the windpipe. The loud music forces them to work on their voice, they have to talk over the music. So, there’s a reason behind it.”

Rock Steady Boxing was founded in Indianapolis in 2006. The Indianapolis gym has about 200 members, and about 300 affiliated gyms nationwide. But until recently, there wasn’t one in the southeast North Carolina area, according to Wilson.

A different kind of treatment for Parkinson’s patients

“There was nothing here for these guys. I don’t mean just Rock Steady, I mean there were very few support groups. The area just now got its first neurologist who specialized in Parkinson’s,” Wilson said.

Mike Wilson helps newcomer Ronald Hovey work on stretching. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Mike Wilson helps newcomer Ronald Hovey work on stretching. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Wilson, who opened the Wilmington chapter in October of last year, said he was looking for a way to train while recovering from his own disability. His daughter, Val, worked at the Elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu; the gym was often deserted during the day.

“So, we had a place to do it, I had Val to help me with the training, it just came together,” Wilson said.

Wilson and his daughter hold hour-long workouts three times a week. The highlight of each workout is boxing, Wilson said.

“We’ll do a lot of stretching, which is crucial for these guys. You have to really think about things and feel them out, sometimes what’s easy for you or me can be really difficult for someone with Parkinson’s. Then we’ll do cardio. We mix it up, something fun, something new. But we always finish with boxing. It’s cardio, and upper body strength and hand-eye coordination, all rolled into one. But the guys really like the boxing, some of them have gotten to be really good boxers,” Wilson said.

The boxing-style training – or “forced exercise” – goes considerably beyond what most of the older Parkinson’s patients would experience in physical therapy, Wilson said. And, though Wilson cited several studies showing the neurological benefits of intense workouts, the real proof was his return trainees.

“One of my best boxers, the first time he showed up, he was hunched over a cane. After a few weeks, he was still bringing the cane, but he’d leave it up front. After a while, he wasn’t bringing the cane at all,” Wilson said. “You see an older guy, running laps, doing push-ups, maybe that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, unless you saw him on that first day with his cane.”

Collins working on speed drills, jabbing and uppercutting a soccer-ball. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Collins working on speed drills, jabbing and uppercutting a soccer-ball. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Tough guys

Tom Collins is one of the original trainees and the group’s best boxer, according to Wilson. During that day’s training, Wilson had Collins boxing southpaw, reversing his usual stance and hand movements.

“I’ll get the hang of it,” said Collins. “I just have to remember to do two things at once. It keeps me young.”

During training, Collins set the pace, moving quickly back and forth across the gym. At one point, Collins fell, but was back on his feet quickly. Wilson said his trainees frequently exceed his expectations.

Ronald Hovey was in his first week of training at Rock Steady Boxing. Wilson said Hovey’s family was worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up.

“I’m not worried about Ron,” Wilson said. “Truth is, I’ve had friends come out here and do the routine with these guys, and by the time we get to the boxing, my friends are winded. And these are older guys — with Parkinson’s. You’d be surprised, keeping up with them is work,” Wilson said.

Knowing just how far to let his group push themselves takes a delicate touch, Wilson said. Parkinson’s affects the muscles of the face and can sometimes make emotion difficult to read.

“When they’re struggling with shoes or boxing gloves, or if they’re in a position on the floor and can’t get up – you have to feel it out,” he said. “How long to you let them struggle before you help them? They don’t want to be coddled. You know, they’re guys.”

Ronald Hovey gets gloved up for one of his first boxing sessions. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Ronald Hovey gets gloved up for one of his first boxing sessions. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Glancing across the room, Wilson nodded to his daughter, helping Ronald Hoovey with his boxing gloves.

“Well, they don’t want to be coddled by me. They will walk right past me and ask Val for help.”

Hovey (left) and Wilson (right) get to work. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Hovey (left) and Wilson get to work. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Wilson said he has received good feedback from local support groups who have seen what training with Wilson has done for Parkinson’s patients.

“(Support groups) usually won’t recommend us — or even mention us — until they come out and see what we’re about. Then they’re on board. The guys in these classes show what you can do. You know, Parkinson’s hits everyone differently, everyone has good days and bad days. But these are tough guys. They never quit, they just never quit.”