It was 1990 when he felt the first twitch. He was on the set of the movie, Doc Hollywood, when a twenty-nine year old Michael J. Fox noticed the uncontrollable twitching and shaking in his pinky finger that led to a shocking Parkinson’s diagnosis.
He spoke candidly about his experience on the Late Show With David Letterman in 2015. “It was scary,” he said. “I was 29 years old and so it was the last thing I expected to hear. I thought I’d hurt my shoulder doing some stunt because I had a twitch in my pinkie. And the doctor said, ‘You have Parkinson’s disease.’ He said, ‘The good news is that you have 10 years of work left.’”
Parkinson’s is a progressive nervous system disorder in which vital nerve cells in the brain malfunction and die, curbing the production of dopamine, the chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls motor skills. Symptoms include tremors, slowed movement, and speech changes, among others.
There is no cure, but treatment options can help manage symptoms.
Of the roughly 6 million people worldwide (1 million in the U.S.), fewer than 10% are diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s at age 50 or younger.
As a pop culture icon and the face of Parkinson’s disease in America, Fox has managed to continue working as an actor, author, producer, and Parkinson’s research advocate despite having lived with the disease for 28 years. In a 2016 interview with Haute Living, Fox said, “I was supposed to be pretty much disabled by now. I’m far from it.” He credits meditation, physical therapy, and intensive non-contact boxing for counteracting the symptoms of the disease.
THE BOXING BREAKTHROUGH
As it turns out, the sport that is most associated as a leading cause of brain injury and even an increased likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease has also been found to be one of the most effective therapies to fight symptoms of the disease when used in its non-contact form.
Various 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. More recent studies conducted 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 and actually seem to slow disease progression.
Rock Steady Boxing, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, gives people with Parkinson’s disease hope by improving their quality of life through a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum. The program was first established in 2006 by Scott C. Newman, an Indiana lawyer, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 40.
Newman began intense, one-on-one, boxing training just a few years after his diagnoses, and he witnessed the dramatic improvement in his physical health, agility and daily functioning through the intense and high energy workouts. That’s when Rock Steady was born.
As word of this unique program spread and the demand for the classes increased, Rock Steady created training programs to specifically combat twenty-two Parkinson’s disease symptoms while also matching the fitness levels at all stages of Parkinson’s, from the newly diagnosed to those who had been living with it for decades plus.
Rocky Steady affiliate programs are now established in all fifty states and fourteen countries as the popularity of the program continues to grow.
THE LOCAL FIGHT
Funded by the Gertrude Ford Foundation and hosted by First Baptist Church Jackson, the local affiliate of Rock Steady began after participant and now certified trainer, Sheri Carter, learned of the program from a close friend following her diagnosis in 2014. Having learned of the program’s benefits, Sheri set upon researching her local options only to be disappointed to find there wasn’t a local affiliate. “I started training with a boxing trainer locally who was a former Marine, and I loved it. It was fun, and I could see an improvement,” says Sheri. After contacting numerous gyms and fitness centers in the Jackson area about starting Rock Steady, Sheri hit a dead end but was undeterred.
In July 2017, Sheri and her son Michael flew to Indianapolis to be trained at the headquarters of the Rock Steady Boxing program where they learned the RSB exercises and became certified trainers.
As she flew back home, Sheri was even more convinced that Jackson needed its own Rock Steady training center.
In January 2018, Ms. Carter met author and retired surgeon, Dr. Randy Voyles, at a Millsaps College class designed to help those suffering from Parkinson’s symptoms. She soon learned that Dr. Voyles, also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, was already a member of Rock Steady Boxing in Atlanta, where he often travels. “I gave Dr. Voyles the Rock Steady affiliate information materials, and he met with his friend and retired pediatric dentist, Dr. Lee Cope, who inspired us to move forward.” “I had been doing a lot of research online about exercise programs and treatment options for Parkinson’s symptoms when I found out about the Rock Steady program,” said Cope. “When my kids found out about it, they really got after me to travel to Indianapolis for the training, especially my eldest daughter, Elizabeth. She’s a physical therapist, so she knew the program could really help me.”
Having learned that FBCJ cardio and fitness instructor Yonnie Waller and others were seeking a new exercise program to benefit members, Carter, Voyles, and Cope met with Bruce Warf, Family Pastor, who agreed to provide First Baptist’s Christian Life Center (CLC) facility for the establishment of central Mississippi’s first Rock Steady Boxing program. Since then, five more participants have been sent to Indianapolis for certification, and the program has grown to include twelve participants, four full-time coaches and several volunteers.
“I am more optimistic about my quality of life,” says Sheri. “I am excited to go to the gym. When I was in my twenties, I played softball, but I’ve never been what I consider to be an athletic person, though I would ride bikes and walk. Now, I look forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays and know that I am going to my rigorous exercise program that is going to make me feel better for days to come.”
As a result of Sheri’s participation in the Rock Steady Boxing program, her Parkinson’s disease symptoms have decreased. She has improved stamina, physical confidence, and even sleeps better. There is a camaraderie among Rock Steady participants and a sense of community that has fostered new friendships for Sheri and her fellow boxers.
Dr. Voyles participates in RSB-MJ not only because he personally benefits but also because it is a ministry to others. “It is most gratifying to see early improvement in others,” Voyles said.
“I coach because I love what this program can do and the potential it has to really help a lot of people,” asserts Jamie Douglas, FBCJ Fitness and Recreation Director and certified personal trainer. “My favorite part of RSB is probably 45 minutes into the workout—when our boxers look as if they are about to give up and put their gloves down—but instead, they hit even harder. That is a sign of pure grit and drive.”
Coach Yonnie Waller believes the program is an answer to prayer. “RSB is definitely something God wanted me to do,” expresses Waller. “I love to see the physical progress gained through RSB and the smiles that it puts on faces!”
In the Rock Steady class at the CLC, the members also read Scripture and have a time of prayer. A resounding common thread is that the Rock Steady program participants always leave with a smile.
ROCK STEADY BOXING | METRO – JACKSON
Call today to schedule an appointment to visit the gym, speak privately with a coach, or watch a class in action. Please consult your physician before starting any exercise program.
For more information or to sponsor a boxer, contact Jaime Douglas at 601.853.3474 or email Jdouglas@fbcj.org.
Classes: Tuesdays & Thursdays 10:00am – 11:00am
Where: 431 N State St, Jackson, MS 39201
Christian Life Center of First Baptist Church Jackson