Taking a punch at Parkinson’s

Peter Manley lowers a left hook while angler Mary (and his wife) holds the gloves. They drive from Wisconsin Rapids to take part in the class. James Card photos

Waopaka boxing program compensates symptoms

by James Card


Peter Manley raised his fists and delivered the first punch: a left punch followed by a right cross. It receded a bit and came out with a slanted left hook and a right top hook to turn off the lights.

He was not fighting another boxer. It fights Parkinson’s disease.

He is one of a handful of boxers who train twice a week at the Waupaca Recreation Center.

Classes are led by coaches from the Seniors Centre.

The offline program is called Rock Steady Boxing and it’s based on the premise that boxing can reverse, reduce, and delay symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Rock Steady Boxing is a nationwide nonprofit organization that was founded in 2006 by Scott Newman who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. His friend Vince Perez was a Golden Gloves boxer and devised an exercise program based on boxing that might help offset the symptoms of the disease.

Newman has made excellent progress and agrees with the medical literature that supports the idea that strenuous exercise involving movement, balance, coordination, strength, and rhythm can slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

Manley’s main character is his wife, Mary. The corner person assists the boxer in the exercises and collects the training equipment.
The name derives from the world of prizefighting where a “visitor” would deliver a nosebleed or apply an inswell to reduce swelling between rounds.

“It’s good exercise and good social interaction,” said Manley, a former triathlete. “It keeps you on track and trying some exercises and a few different things. They have a lot of different equipment so it stays fun.”

They drove from Wisconsin Rapids to attend class. The Waupaka class has so far attracted people from Antiguo, Wausau and Stevens Point.

There are 16 Rock Steady Boxing programs in Wisconsin. The only other locations in the Central Wisconsin area are Wautoma, Oshkosh, Appleton, and Green Bay.

Training sessions

The training session begins with a series of stretching and coordination exercises led by Sarah Raybrook, the 1st Place Coordinator. She earned her degree at Rock Steady’s headquarters in Indianapolis and started classes at Waupaca in September 2020.

Vanessa Wozinski, a physical therapist at Thedacare, and Helen Halverson, a fitness trainer, are also certified trainers involved in the program.

After the warm-up, the gloves come on and the boxers advance through a series of punches, crosses, hooks and up. The person in the corner puts on a pair of punching gloves and the boxers can strike freely with a mixture of punches mixed with duck motions.

Don Tomet was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease last year and has been training since first grade. He pointed out that some people with Parkinson’s disease suffer from tremors, which is not the case. For him, it was a loss of balance.

“It helps with balance,” he said, showing how the boxer transfers his weight from one foot to the other when he throws a punch.
“There is an improvement in balance, gait, coordination, speech. All the aspects we focus on we see improvement,” Wowzynski said.

“Besides classes, it’s also a support group and it’s good to see how others are doing,” Tommet said.

Next, they took turns hitting the heavy bag and then moved on to a self-contained torso doll named Bob. Boxers grabbed Bob by the shoulders and projected him into his guts.
They moved on to the three-digit speed sack: bam! Thump, thump, thump, bam! It is the most difficult of the exercises to master but the reward is increased hand-eye coordination and a better sense of rhythm.

After training on the balance beam and stability ball, they grabbed a pair of dumbbells and worked their way through sets of curls, presses, extensions, thrusts, and flies.
They got off the floor mats and did some bird dog stretches and then rolled onto their backs for meditation and a deep breathing session. With the sound of gentle ocean waves in the background, Coach Halverson spoke with them into an enchanted state of quiet bliss.

At the end of the session, they gathered in a circle and shouted in their rallying cry in their battle against Parkinson’s: “Never. Underestimate. Heart. Fighter!”

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