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Boxing is changing the lives of Parkinson's patients

Feb 01, 2018 08:30AM ● Published by Greg James

Sherri Bickley works with her trainees in all situations to make sure they are safe. (Greg James/City Journals)

Gallery: Rock Steady [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

In the last year, more than 30 Parkinson’s disease patients have trained a few times a week with head trainer Sherri Bickley. Although not a cure, she said the non-contact boxing has had benefits. Rock Steady Boxing-Wasatch Front trainees have seen improvement in their symptoms.

“I am a medical social worker and have been involved with quality care and hospice for almost 20 years,” Bickley said. “I have boxed for seven years for fun and fitness. One day I saw an elderly man working in the ring, and I saw that he had Parkinson’s. The chance to put medical social work together with boxing was intriguing to me. I googled Parkinson’s and boxing, and up popped Rock Steady in Indianapolis. I trained to be a coach and opened as an affiliate here in Utah.”

Rock Steady is a national nonprofit organization. Nearly 60,000 people are diagnosed with the disease annually. Rock Steady has 511 programs around the world, and more than 25,000 people are currently training in the program.

“Utah has almost double the national prevalence of Parkinson’s,” Bickley said. “We opened in August of 2016 with three boxers. One came in with a cane that day, and now she can almost do more burpees (a full body exercise involving a squat, push up and jump)  than I can. Today, we have over 90 participants.” 

The boxing training works with balance, hand-eye-coordination, strength, agility, endurance, function and much more. They use stretching and warm up exercises, punching bags and training equipment. The national Rock Steady program offers ongoing training for its coaches, including tips, new exercises and help with symptoms and keeping its boxers safe.

“The coaches trade information and work with specialists in Parkinson’s,” Bickley said. “They have helped with medical questions. When we are together, we start with stretching. That is one of the basics of our patients; it helps with their rigidity. They will do floor exercises all modified to ability. They use heavy bags with combination punches. They also do circuit training.” 

Neurologists have been referring patients to boxing programs as soon as possible. Many patients have seen improvement from building strength. 

Patients range from ages 31 to 87. Many were forced to retire or change profession after diagnosis. Bickley has seen participants return to work.

Highland residents Don Call was diagnosed about eight years ago. 

“I had shakiness and was unsteady,” he said. “It sounded like a death sentence. This is incurable, and it changed many of the things I did every day in my life. Here (at training) we all suffer from the same thing, and it is nice to get together with everyone else. I have improved my stability, stamina and strength. For me, it is not about boxing. I like the strength and agility that I am able to work on.”

Family support is a big part of the program. The patients can invite family or friends to help them. Lehi’s Stephanie Miner goes twice a week with her mother as a corner man. She helps with all the exercises, and she is able to spend time with her mom.

“When I first figured out what was going on, my handwriting went very tiny and my voice became very constricted,” said Orem resident Ruth Killpack. “The biggest benefit I have seen has been emotionally. This is a safe place I can come and associate with people going through the same thing I am.” 

Many of the boxers call the program a saving force for them.

“When I came in with a cane and twisted over, I was sick; it felt grim,” said participant Sheila Powell. “This has been the answer for me. I was falling. I have reduced the drugs I take. This is a family.” 

Rock Steady Boxing-Wasatch Front is dedicated to helping individuals with Parkinson’s disease fight back. The program is operated at Legends Boxing in Riverton, Lehi and Sandy. For more information, contact Bickley at 913-488-6823. 

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