Rick Deming stands on the corner of the boxing ring, his arms against the ropes and a look of scorn on his face.
Ding, ding, ding.
The pudgy 50-year-old from Huntington Beach comes charging in, throwing body blows at boxing coach Raul Franco.
“You can do it,” yells Franco, who is absorbing Deming’s punches with mitts and a body protector. “Come on.”
A small crowd cheers Deming as he continues hammering Franco with a barrage of punches.
Deming has Parkinson’s and each combination he throws is a punch against a neurological disease that has robbed him of some of his movements.
Deming is a participant in Rock Steady Boxing, a new boxing workout program at American Gym in Costa Mesa designed for people living with Parkinson’s disease. The program was started about six months ago by Anne Adams, a 54-year-old certified personal trainer and Rock Steady boxing coach.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that primarily affects a person’s motor skills. The disease attacks the production of dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that regulates smoothness and fluidity of movement, said Dr. Janet Chance, program advisor to the Parkinson’s and movement disorders program at Hoag Neurosciences Institute.
Chance said there are four motor symptoms used to diagnose Parkinson’s: tremor, stiffness, slowness of movement and difficulty with balance.
Worldwide, seven to 10 million people live with the disease and about 50,000 to 60,000 cases are diagnosed each year, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
At least 7,000 people in Orange County have Parkinson’s disease, Chance said.
There is no cure for the disease, but it can be controlled by medication and regular exercise, she said.
“Just imagine what it would be like if you wake up tomorrow morning and have no control of your movements; that is Parkinson’s,” Chance said.
Adams said the theory behind the boxing program is that allowing people who live with Parkinson’s to exercise and perform boxing drills slows the progress of the disease.
Adams said boxing requires a lot of multi-tasking.
“A person in the ring is not only paying attention to the person in front of them, but also thinking of which punch to throw, where to move their feet, and listening to the coaches,” Adams said. “So much of Parkinson’s is the mind not telling the body to perform an act. This combats that.”
Though the exercise program is not scientifically proven, doctors call it “evidence-based medicine.”
“It’s actually surprisingly effective,” Chance said of the boxing workout. “It works on movement speed, flexibility and strength. When patients are hitting the heavy bag or mitts, they get positive feedback of how hard they are hitting, the control they have and what muscles they are using.”
Chance said scientists and researchers are now finding out the benefits of boxing with Parkinson’s.
“More data is coming out that physical and cognitive challenges make a difference,” Chance said.
Adams started the program in California after seeing her own father, Don McNallay, 78, benefit from Rock Steady Boxing in Indianapolis. Rock Steady Boxing is considered the father of the boxing with Parkinson’s phenomena. Its headquarters are in Indianapolis and began in 2006.
Adams said her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 10 years ago and it had progressed to the point where he was in a wheelchair. He also suffered from depression.
She said her sister and brother-in-law were thinking about placing him in hospice care a couple years ago before serendipitously meeting Joyce Johnson of Rock Steady Boxing at an Indiana Pacers basketball game.
“Once he started our program, he got better immediately,” said Johnson, executive director at Rock Steady Boxing in Indiana. “He quit using his wheelchair and in three or four months he wasn’t just walking, he was running.”
Adams said her father told her he was training in boxing as a form of rehabilitation, but she brushed it off. Then, when she visited him last year, she saw a new man.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Adams said. “He was up, walking and dancing. My dad doesn’t dance, but he was dancing in class. This was the same man who lost all of that.”
“I said to myself, ‘This program is just too good to only be here. I have to learn about this and bring it here,’” she said.
Adams was certified earlier this year in Indianapolis and started the Rock Steady Boxing California affiliate in May. She has about 16 clients.
Though it’s labeled as just a boxing workout, the training program serves as so much more.
Daniel Cathcart, an 81-year-old retired attorney from West Los Angeles, was one of Adams’ first clients. He said he loves the camaraderie, bonding and support.
Cathcart was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 10 years ago, but he believes he’s had the disease since the 1970s when he first lost his sense of smell, which is an early sign.
“I feel that I’m improving,” Cathcart said. “I’m definitely not getting worse. I have a personal trainer, but I love the competitive spirit here. There’s pressure on you to perform and there are a lot of benefits to working as a group.”
Deloris Nouhan, a 79-year-old from Newport Beach, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s last year. She said before starting the program she staggered when she walked and was beginning to stoop. Now, she has better balance and is able to stand up straight, she said.
As for Deming, he and his son, Ricky, 24, have noticed a tremendous difference since he started the program in June. When Deming was diagnosed in 2006, his physical abilities quickly deteriorated. There were times his right arm seemed glued to his right side. Friends and family thought he was always in a bad mood because his face showed no expression.
“My gait wasn’t right, my right arm was dead. I had ‘Parkinson’s mask’ that even though I felt fine inside, I wasn’t smiling,” Deming said.
He said boxing has really helped him develop physical strength and gain a positive attitude, important components to “beat Parkinson’s,” he said.
Still, there are days where he is unable to move and freezes in the middle of a workout.
“It can change on a dime,” Deming said about Parkinson’s. “One day I’ll be doing really well and the next I’ll feel really weak and tired. But I feel worse when I don’t attend class.”
Adams said living with Parkinson’s is a daily grind. Parkinson’s doesn’t take a day off so it’s important to work out and exercise every day, she said.
“It’s a day-to-day fight,” she said.
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