Senior Living Residents Channel Rocky To Fight Parkinson’s

Those who think rigorous activity could be detrimental to seniors should rethink their position, as a boxing program that involves high-intensity training is being implemented into senior living communities around the country—and it’s helping individuals with Parkinson’s disease. 

Headquartered in Indianpolis, Rock Steady Boxing focuses on teaching adults with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders boxing drills. The drills use rigorous exercise, emphasizing gross motor movement, balance, core strength and rhythm, Kristy Follmar, retired world champion professional boxer, director and head coach at Rock Steady Boxing, explained to Senior Housing News. 

The organization was founded by Marion County, Indiana, elected prosecutor Scott Newman, who was diagnosed with the disease at age 39. At the time, there wasn’t much evidence supporting exercise to help movement disorders. His doctor even advised against it, Follmar said. 


But Scott had a friend who was a former Golden Gloves boxer and he taught Scott boxing skills, which made a significant impact on his life. 

“Scott was losing his fine motor skills, like typing on a computer,” explained Follmar. “But he made so much progress boxing that he was able to go back for a second term as prosecutor.”

For people who are consistent with the program, many notice a difference in a few weeks when it comes to their dexterity, hand-eye coordination and balance, she added.


Training Camp 

The program started with just a handful of participants, but once those with Parkinson’s started seeing positive results, Rock Steady Boxing was getting calls from people and other organizations around the world. Because of this positive exposure, in 2011 the organization was able to secure a grant to start Rock Steady Training Camp, to train coaches on the method.

During the training, coaches learn the fighter curriculum as the foundation of the program. 

“[The fighter curriculum] … sets us apart,” Follmar said. “With Parkinson’s you have to work on a multitude of things, but the concept of forced intense exercise is at the root of how the progression of the disease is slowed.”

Another large part of the Rock Steady curriculum teaches students how to fall correctly, as the risk of falling among people with Parkinson’s, as well as older people in general, is much greater. 

Training camp for new coaches consists of a two-day seminar that is held in Indianapolis, but once a coach completes training, they have the option to become an affiliate of Rock Steady. As an affiliate, coaches can take the program back to their local gym, senior living community or rehabilitation hospital as well as use marketing materials from Rock Steady and tap into continuing education with the organization. 

Currently there are 360 Rock Steady Boxing Programs and 18,000 people training with the program throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, Italy and Sweden.

Applying the Model to Senior Living

The fitness and wellness coordinator at Plymouth Place Senior Living, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in La Grange Park, Illinois, went through the Rock Steady training program earlier this year and is now teaching it to residents in the Plymouth Place community. The community has just opened up the program to residents living in the La Grange area as well.

At Plymouth Place, the training is offered to those with a diagnosis of early Parkinson’s disease regardless of age, Rita Lopienski, director of life enrichment, told SHN. 

There are about 10 residents at Plymouth Place who come to class consistently each week, but there will hopefully be an increase with opening up the program to the wider La Grange community, Lopienski added.

The classes are all done in a group setting. In addition to alleviating physical repercussions of Parkinson’s, the social aspect of the program can also help people with depression, which can be an additional side effect of the disease, Follmar said.

“We want to encourage people to get active and not be intimidated—anyone can do this, we have people who come in wheelchairs and people in their 80s and 90s,” explained Follmar. “Parkinson’s doesn’t discriminate.” 

Written by Alana Stramowski

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