Fighting back against Parkinson’s

By on August 9, 2017

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I peeked into the gym at the former Jewish Community Center on Oregon Pike just before 8 a.m. recently, looking for trainer Sue Ludwig.

A group of seniors preparing for an exercise session greeted me warmly. They ranged in age from 40 to 80 and many exhibited some balance and movement challenges.

A minute later rock music started to pour from speakers in the corner of the gym and a bell sounded. The gym erupted into non-stop activity under the direction of leotard-clad Ludwig, moving at an Energizer Bunny pace.

Everyone moved between exercise stations jumping rope, pounding boxing dummies, floor and speed bags. Trainers and volunteers moved between groups, interacting with individuals and keeping the pace and energy level high.

I was watching what I came to learn about — Rock Steady Boxing. It’s 90-minutes of non-stop action for a group fighting, literally, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, an affliction diagnosed 60,000 times each year and one without a cure.

RSB was founded in 2006 by an Indiana attorney, Scott C. Newman, who had contracted early onset Parkinson’s. According to RSB’s website, Newman began intense one-on-one boxing training just a few years after he was diagnosed at 40. He discovered improvement in his physical health, agility, daily functioning and quality of life through the intense and high energy non-contact boxing workouts. He started a 501 C3 company, and today 20,000 Parkinson’s patients take part in programs in more than 400 locations worldwide.

Ludwig, a Lititz resident with three grown children, literally backed into the program.

“I was doing personal training at the Rec Center,” she explained, when a senior with Parkinson’s symptoms sought a trainer. “I had worked with seniors before,” she said, “and was up for the challenge.”

Ludwig soon learned that developing the right fitness programs for Parkinson’s clients was a challenge in itself.

There are very few fitness programs for Parkinson’s adults in the area, and Ludwig, already a certified personal trainer, received Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery (PWR) certification in 2014 and then Delay the Disease training — focusing on opening new neuropathways through repetitive movement for her Parkinson’s clients — in 2016. Her training business continued to attract new Parkinson’s clients.

“These certifications taught me the how and the why of Parkinson’s,” she said, “and I was better prepared to work with individuals with both modest and major symptoms. But as she began to use her new skills in 2016, she heard of the Rock Steady Boxing program and went to Indianapolis to work with the founding organization for certification.

When she returned, Ludwig knew she would need a large gym to accommodate multiple exercise areas holding boxing equipment to do RSB training correctly. She rented space at the old Jewish Community Center facility now owned by the Emerald Foundation on Oregon Pike. An initial open house shortly after the first of the year attracted nearly 100 people but yielded only 20 clients.

“To be honest, I was disappointed,” Ludwig said, “and wondered if I had made a mistake.”

Although there were RSB programs in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, there was nothing in Central PA and it took a while for word to get around. Ludwig had not made a mistake. Her client base is growing steadily and now includes nearly 100 men and women who do intense exercise — and love it — twice a week for 90 minutes. There is a monthly fee for the classes and any participant will tell you they are getting their money’s worth and more. Ludwig reaches out pro-actively to the medical community about the program and speaks regularly at retirement communities about the benefits of boxing for those diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The RSB sessions are exhausting and emotionally draining for the staff and volunteers. Everyone is going non-stop and the staff does back-to-back sessions.

“It’s so empowering,” Ludwig said, “and the clients’ enthusiasm is contagious.”

Because of the continuous physical activity and movement from one station to the next including boxing, jumping rope, movement and agility exercises, Ludwig relies on a number of volunteers to spot and assist clients while they exercise and encourage them along the way. She pointed out that boxing takes good balance, and the exercises focus on helping Parkinson’s clients improve balance, flexibility and reach.

Says Ron Potier, former admissions director at Franklin and Marshall and Elizabethtown colleges, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago and has been boxing for six months, “I have seen some physical improvement, but the mental aspect of it is tremendous. It is so empowering and it feels great to be doing something so physical.”

The atmosphere in the gym is electric. Ludwig blares a soundtrack of high energy music interspersed with a loud bell, similar to one used to signal the start and end of a boxing round. There are 45-second exercise periods followed by 15-second recovery time. The blocks are nine minutes long and start after initial warm-up exercises. It all ends with an “empty the tank” segment where participants literally dig deep for a final push. The sessions end with a cool-down period similar to those at the end of yoga classes.

With referrals from doctors and physical therapists and word-of-mouth recommendations, Ludwig anticipates having to schedule additional classes at different intensity levels in the near future.

“I need more certified boxing instructors and volunteers to support the program,” she said.

Personal Trainer and volunteer Brenda Dorsey will soon be boxing certified. Her husband Bill, 70, has Parkinson’s and has seen better balance, strength and movement through the classes. “The program has made a world of difference for both Bill and me,” she said.

Dedicated volunteer Bob McKane, a retired nurse anesthetist from Lititz who finished a long career at Wellspan in Ephrata, met Ludwig at the Lititz Rec and started volunteering at her Parkinson’s programs soon after. McKane handles marketing, advertising and fundraising for RSB and is the chair of the group’s beer dinner at the Bulls Head Public House in Lititz this coming Monday, Aug. 14, to help raise needed funds for more boxing equipment so the program can expand.

For information on the fundraiser, call 717-626-2115.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative movement disorder which can cause deterioration of motor skills, balance, speech and sensory function. Ludwig says studies in the 1980s and 1990s supported the notion that rigorous exercise, emphasizing gross motor movement, balance, core strength, and rhythm, could favorably impact range of motion, flexibility, posture, gait, and activities of daily living. And more recent studies, most notably at Cleveland Clinic, focus on the concept of intense “forced” exercise, and have begun to suggest that certain kinds of exercise may be neuro-protective — actually slowing disease progression.

As word of this program spreads in the Parkinson’s community there is more demand for new sessions for the the newly diagnosed to those who had been living with it for decades.

The RSB program mission is to empower people with Parkinson’s disease to “fight back,” Ludwig smiles, “and we see it here big time every day.”

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at

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