As 82-year-old Marilyn Hanson swings at a hanging punching bag, her husband, Ron, sits nearby smiling at her with contentment. Boxing is something very new and different for this petite, soft-spoken woman. Her jabs don’t pack much of a punch, but it’s keeping her active, and that’s what counts.
Hanson has Parkinson’s disease, a nervous system disorder that affects mobility. To combat its effects, she and around 20 others with Parkinson’s meet twice a week for a special Rock Steady Boxing class at Cen-Cal Fitness in Fresno that started in April.
“She was shuffling and walking with a cane, then we got one of those walkers,” her husband recalls. “She fell a couple times. Then we heard about this Parkinson’s group. … I call it CrossFit for Parkinson’s.”
Ron Hanson says the boxing class has given Marilyn more confidence. Now she walks without assistance, even up and down stairs.
It’s the mind telling the body what to do, that’s the secret of it. It’s not the trying to hit somebody.
One of the newest members is former TV newscaster Bud Elliott, who retired from KSEE24 in 2014 after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“It’s a lot of fun and it seems to be a big help. It gets you in shape, in spite of everything,” Elliott says of the boxing. “It’s a good hour-and-a-half workout. They say one of the best therapies for Parkinson’s is physical fitness. A lot of walking, jogging, if you can do it, and stuff like this.”
I’m not into feeling macho or anything like that. I just like the exercise that I get. It’s hand-eye coordination.
The boxing is taught by coach John Bowers, who also incorporates stretching, weight training and fun exercises like bean bag tosses to improve hand-eye coordination. Participant Ken Rivera describes Bowers as “thoughtful, respectful, fun and knowledgeable,” but adds that he “doesn’t give us any mercy.”
“Nope, no way,” Bowers says with a smile as he carries weights around the gym.
Bowers describes Parkinson’s as interrupting signals being sent from the brain to the body. The boxing aims to improve that faltering communication.
Rivera is co-leader of the Greater Fresno Parkinson’s Support Group, which refers its members to the boxing class and a dance class taught by Kathy Page. Like many in the boxing class, the emotional support is just as important as the physical activity for participant Karen Shaver.
With Parkinson’s, there’s a lot of panic and anxiety.
“When you are in a group like this, people die, and it’s hard,” Shaver says. “We encourage each other and support each other.”
One of Rivera’s first Parkinson’s symptoms was delayed speech several years ago. Medicine has helped give him back his voice, and the boxing is keeping him strong. It comes naturally to the athletic Rivera, who once served as a college sports on-field official and supervisor of the Mountain West Conference.
I’m not defined by the disease. I’m defined by the person that I am.
Rivera says boxing also helps release tense energy “stuffed inside ya,” but that the best part is the social group, “because you have 20 people who are in the same state, different levels.”
Rivera’s wife, Marcie Bero-Rivera, also participates in the boxing, as do many spouses of those with Parkinson’s. It’s been good for both of them. Rivera says it helps him remember that the glass remains “half-full, not half-empty.”
How to get involved
- Boxing: 1-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at Cen-Cal Fitness, 7084 N. Cedar Ave., Fresno. $85 a month. Contact 559-392-8842 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dancing: 11 a.m. Tuesdays at Studio 65 - Let’s Dance, 2977 N. Maroa Ave., Fresno. $5 suggested minimum donation per class. Contact 559-240-3200 or email@example.com.
- Parkinson’s Disease Education Summit hosted by Greater Fresno Parkinson’s Support Group: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 11, Clovis Senior Center, 850 Fourth St., Clovis. Speakers, instructors leading boxing and dancing sessions, and complimentary lunch. Free admission.