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North Hills Monthly

Rock Steady Program Helps Those with Parkinson’s Punch Back

Jan 31, 2018 01:59PM ● By Shari Berg

Bob Coyner, John Basso and Terri Billhimer at Fit 4 Boxing Club

Three years ago, 72-year-old Rich Hughes walked with a cane and struggled to maintain proper balance. Like so many others who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Hughes was slowly losing control of his mobility and balance. 

The degenerative movement disorder causes the deterioration of fine and gross motor skills, balance, speech and sensory function, according to the Western Pennsylvania Parkinson Foundation. More than 60,000 people are diagnosed each year with Parkinson’s in the United States, and it is the 11th leading cause of death for residents of Allegheny County, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.

Fast-forward to today, and Hughes is jabbing, hooking and upper-cutting his way to a stronger, more stable body. He no longer needs to use his cane, and he brags about the fact that “most days are good days.” 

It wasn’t a miracle drug that resulted in Hughes’ turnaround. It was a program called Rock Steady, a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum designed specifically for people living with Parkinson’s. The program is offered at Fit 4 Boxing Club in Allison Park, where Hughes and approximately 150 other individuals with Parkinson’s come up to five days a week to improve their health. 

Rich Mushinsky, Fit 4 Boxing Club owner, said becoming certified in the Rock Steady program was the best thing he’s ever done. “Without the Rock Steady program, this would just be another gym,” he said. 

Long before he was certified to teach the Rock Steady program, Mushinsky was working out in his own garage with the late Dr. Michael Bell, a retired physician who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 68. Mushinsky noticed that the intense boxing workouts he was doing with Dr. Bell seemed to be helping his Parkinson’s symptoms.

“We had no idea why they were working, but we definitely noticed the results,” he explained. “A few years later, after I opened the gym, I learned about Rock Steady and realized we were doing something really similar in my garage long before I ever knew about it.” 

While exercise of any kind has been proven to help those with Parkinson’s, a study published in the Dec. 11, 2017 JAMA Neurology issue indicates that the more intense the exercise–such as boxing–the better the results. 

Mushinsky contacted the Rock Steady Boxing organization and received official training and certification to become a Rock Steady location in the Pittsburgh region. His is one of only three gyms in the Pittsburgh area offering the program. “It’s not a cure what we’re doing, but it helps,” he said.

Hughes said he is definitely pleased with the progress he’s made thanks to Rock Steady. “When I first started here, trainers had to stand beside me and behind me because I would lose my balance pretty easily,” he explained. “It’s been a year since I’ve needed backup from someone. This class, it’s been a lifeline for me.” 

John Basso, 78, of Glenshaw, has been coming to the Rock Steady class for a month. His wife, Sandra, attends the seniors' boxing class at Fit 4 Boxing Club and encouraged him to come. Basso was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 11 years ago and has seen a steady decline in his balance and motor skills since his diagnosis. After just one month in the class, he’s already been able to get out of his wheelchair and use a walker, and he has become more aware of his surroundings. His main goal is to keep the disease from progressing. 

“Coming here also gives him something to look forward to each week,” said Sandra Basso. “If we had known about this class before, we would have definitely come here sooner.” 

Brett Burkhart, Fit 4 Boxing Club’s manager, said 250 people with Parkinson’s have been evaluated by the club for participation in the class. Participants are given a ranking that indicates the progression level of their Parkinson’s, which in turn dictates how much assistance they will need once they begin the program. When Hughes first began he was assessed as a PD4, one of the highest ratings for someone with Parkinson’s. 

“Now, he’s a PD1. Rich is proof of what this program can do,” said Burkhart. “They have to believe that they are bigger than Parkinson’s disease, and it’s part of my job to help inspire them.” 

Hughes said that in addition to the intense workout he receives in the Rock Steady class, the camaraderie he experiences with others who know his struggle is priceless. “It’s not just about sweating here,” he said. “It’s about friendships and the social aspect of the class. If someone doesn’t come to class for a few weeks, we worry if they are okay.” 

Hughes encourages others who have been diagnosed with the disease not to give up, but to get active and keep a positive attitude. He said, “The will and the hope to get better goes a long way in helping the program work. The right attitude has to be a part of it.”

Learn more about the Rock Steady class by visiting www.fit4boxingclub.com/rock-steady-boxing.

To learn more about Parkinson’s Disease, visit www.pfwpa.org.