HYANNIS, Mass. — With sweat dripping down his face and his eyes locked in laser focus, Jay Zavala punched with vigor to the cornerman’s instruction.

“One, one, two,” the cornerman said as Zavala, 73, punched twice with one arm and raised his leg to kick the small punching target.

The scene looked similar to what one might see at the Alpha Krav Maga boxing gym on any given day.

But this class was different: Not only were most of the 15 participants seniors, but all of them have Parkinson’s disease.

“To them, they were kicking,” said Laurie Keating, a physical therapy assistant, athletic trainer and one of the instructors of the class. “But to us they were practicing single-leg balance.”


It’s called Rock Steady Boxing – a program specifically designed for those with Parkinson’s to help strengthen motor skills, balance, speech and sensory function, a decline in which are symptoms of the neurological condition.

And following Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Cape Cod’s inaugural eight-week run of the program, clinicians and participants agree that the modified, noncontact boxing has worked wonders.

“Some of these people could not jump, could not run, could not get off the floor,” said Barbara Kimmey, the Spaulding physical therapist who was trained in Rock Steady. “They’re my heroes.”

After 16 classes, participants interviewed agree they feel stronger, more coordinated, have better endurance and have formed social bonds with others who share a diagnosis.

When Zavala was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a year ago, he and his wife Susan, a retired nurse, decided they were not going to stand idly by and allow the disease to take over.

“I wanted to be in charge of it and not be a victim,” said Zavala, a Falmouth resident and the former president and CEO of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a dance out there.”

Rock Steady began in 2006 when Indiana prosecutor Scott Newman was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at 40.

He began training with a boxing coach and noticed improvements in his health and functioning through the intense, high-energy workouts.

There are now nearly 450 Rock Steady programs around the world, according to the nonprofit’s website.


Several studies have shown that regular exercise can increase the quality of life and lessen symptom progression of those with Parkinson’s. Keating said the best results come from those who push themselves beyond their comfort zones during exercise.

“That level of intensity is most beneficial for preventing as quick a decline in motor symptoms that would happen otherwise,” she said.

Exercise has worked for Christine Ludwig, who has lived with Parkinson’s for 15 years.

“I’m convinced because I’m an exercise freak, it’s slowed the progression,” the East Dennis resident said.

Like many in the boxing class, Ludwig also takes thrice-weekly spin classes for those with Parkinson’s at the West Barnstable YMCA.

She said she feels better balanced, stronger and, most importantly, more confident after the boxing classes.

Everyone in the class is a fighter, she said, which translates into an environment where those with a shared diagnosis can come together to motivate and push each other, she said.

“You don’t get sympathy here – you get empathy,” she said.

“There’s a trust level that happens.”

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