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The sound of gloved fists crashing against punching bags echoed through Polk Street Boxing Gym as eager students wrapped their hands in gauze and tape. These individuals weren’t readying for an ordinary 90-minute fitness class however, they were preparing to fight back against Parkinson’s disease.

Rock Steady Boxing San Francisco (RSB) has reinvented the idea of physical therapy with a non-contact boxing fitness program developed for people with Parkinson’s disease. The first-of-its-kind program, originally founded in 2006 by a former Marion County Prosecutor living with Parkinson’s in Indianapolis, opened last year in San Francisco.

Parkinson’s is a disease of the central nervous system that typically affects movement; symptoms include: tremors, slowness of movement, stiffness, impaired balance and coordination. More than one million people in the United States live with Parkinson’s according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Veronica Garcia-Hayes, 44, is a fighter at RSB who was diagnosed in 2009 while she was four months pregnant with her first daughter.
“I’ve really been able to rest better at night, complete sleep, fewer tremors, better balance, definitely much more strength,” Hayes said, after starting classes at RSB last year. “The camaraderie that comes along from being around other people in the same condition really helps the mind set.”

In attempt to combat her disease, Hayes tried cycling, yoga and weight training as other forms of physical therapy, but believes RSB has helped her condition the most.

“Working with the trainers at RSB is great because they evolve as I evolve in my ability to do things,” she said. “They adjust their program to push me further.”

For 45-year-old RSB Coach Freddy Silva, who works as a cornerman for women’s world boxing champion Melissa McMorrow, being part of the program has enabled him to give back to the community and stay involved in what he says is, “the best sport in the world.”

Silva, who is also a drug and alcohol counselor, believes that the sport goes hand in hand with other parts of his life.

“It’s easy to give up, it’s easy to put the gloves down and walk out of the gym and never come back,” Silva said. “It’s hard to stay; it’s hard to learn combinations; it’s hard to do these drills. Whether you have Parkinson’s, whether you are in really good shape, it’s difficult because nothing that’s worthwhile is easy.”

Kim Woolley, an RSB Coach began teaching at Polk Street Boxing Gym more than five years ago. Although she got into boxing much later in life, Woolley received her first speed bag and gloves at the age of five.

RSB is 90 to 95 percent regular boxing training that anyone at a boxing class would do, and 5 to 10 percent exercises specific to people with Parkinson’s, “focusing on posture, balance, core stability and also the voice activation,” Woolley said.

“Since we started a year ago, I’ve seen improvements in individuals with their overall strength, with their posture, with their ability to do everyday tasks—things like folding the laundry, things that they haven’t been able to do before,” Woolley said. “It’s really a natural support system that’s built in with these fighters.”

Marta San Luciano Palenzuela, a Parkinson’s Neurologist at UCSF Medical Center, believes continuous exercise is important for treating the disease.

“Studies on exercise and physical therapy are difficult to perform, but in the past five years, there have been a lot of studies published on different modalities of exercise and physical therapy on Parkinson’s, and the majority have been very positive,” Palenzuela said.

Palenzuela added that patients often differ from each other and that most exercise programs have to be tailored to fit individual needs. However, she believes that boxing tackles a combination of exercises that she encourages her patients to do.

“One thing that I was impressed with from the Rock Steady program was that their 90-minute class not only has the calisthenics—warming up and exercises that particularly focus on balance—but also has a part in which people exercise their voices,” Palenzuela said.
Speech training is not typically part of a fitness program, but is important for those with Parkinson’s she added, explaining that patients tend to have soft, monotone voices and usually have a hard time communicating their thoughts.

Hayes hasn’t been the only one noticing a change in her physique. “People that haven’t seen me in several months or seen me in up to a year are completely amazed by my ability to move better,” she said. “It’s in combination with medication, but the medication that I take allows me to work out and the workout actually allows me to take less medication, so the two combined actually really work.”