CAPE ELIZABETH — Every Monday for the last six months, Jeanne Blatchford has traveled nearly an hour from her home in North Berwick for a boxing class.
But not just any boxing class.
Blatchford was one of the first members of Coastal Rehab’s Rock Steady Boxing program – a non-contact class for people living with Parkinson’s disease.
On Oct. 15, she and about a dozen others showed up to attend the weekly session at Coastal Fit, the exercise gym attached to the rehab facility on Davis Point Lane. Construction on the gym was completed last spring.
“There is a lot of camaraderie and caring and I notice I’m much stronger, definitely,” Blatchford said. “I want people with Parkinson’s to know (even though) there is no cure for Parkinson’s, you can keep active and live a happy life.”
Tia Parady, a certified personal trainer who coaches the class, said there are four levels offered, based on what stage people are at in the progression of the disease. Participants are given a professional assessment before starting classes at Rock Steady.
Level four is for people in advanced stages who may be using a wheelchair, Parady said, while level one is for newly diagnosed people who might be able to “do 20 push-ups in a row.”
Parady was part of a group from Coastal Fit that traveled to the Rock Steady Boxing headquarters in Indianapolis for training. She said Coastal Rehab owner and occupational therapist Nathalie Descheneaux thought it would be a good program to bring to the facility.
“They basically did a Parkinson’s crash course with us,” Parady said.
Parady formerly worked as an intake coordinator at Coastal Rehab, and said the facility “very much specializes” in Parkinson’s, and offers Lee Silverman Voice Training programs.
The programs are separated into two types: LSVT BIG, which helps people with Parkinson’s move their bodies more normally, and LSVT LOUD, which helps them strengthen their voices.
Parady said while LSVT programs have long been recommended by neurologists, as the Rock Steady program expands internationally, more doctors are recommending patients also give it a try.
“Neurologists are saying ‘you should try the Rock Steady Boxing program,’ which most doctors would (typically) not want, especially someone with Parkinson’s (who has) balance restrictions to do something like this,” she said. “But it’s proven scientifically to help.”
According to the Rock Steady Boxing website, studies have suggested intense “forced” exercise may be neuroprotective, effectively slowing disease progression.
During the Oct. 16 class, coaches had boxers go through stations with different exercises after a group warm-up, including hitting a heavy bag with a partner, one-on-one training with a coach, and running through an agility ladder on the floor.
With the exercises done in class, Parady said coaches are doing things that are challenging, but “in a safe way,” such as testing range of movement and motion and balance coordination.
She also said sometimes the stations in class will also deal with dexterity, such as having participants write their names on a whiteboard or stack pennies.
Michele Delisle, an occupational therapist at Coastal Rehab and Rock Steady coach, said Coastal Fit provides a sort of continuation of care for people who receive therapy at Coastal Rehab, such as the LSVT programs.
Delisle said she has seen improvements in participants in a variety of areas.
“I wish we had pictures of before and after, because we’ve been doing this for six months,” she said. “Posture is improving, their balance is improving, they’re just all socially more involved.”
Some participants in the level three and four classes require what Parady called a corner man, which is a spouse, friend or family member who can serve as a “second set of eyes” on a particular boxer.
Blatchford’s husband of 59 years, Lynd, for instance, accompanies her to each class. He said because Parkinson’s can make smiling physically difficult, seeing boxers smile after three sessions made his day.
“When I told Tia one time how thankful (I was) that this was being held I teared up, it was so wonderful,” he said.
Parady said Rock Steady Boxing, in addition to its therapeutic benefits, gives participants a place to be themselves.
“It’s tough love in the sense of it’s not a doctor’s office, these aren’t patients, they can laugh, they can cry, they can swear here; they can really be themselves,” she said. “And be themselves with Parkinson’s without having to feel like their tremor is too much for other people, or that they’re embarrassed about it.”
Danny Nee of South Portland throws a punch at Coastal Rehab’s Rock Steady Boxing on Oct. 15. The weekly class is aimed at improving quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s disease.
Rock Steady Boxing participant Susan Anderson trains with coach Michele Delisle, an occupational therapist at Coastal Fit, a gym connected to Coastal Rehab.
Larry Goodine of North Yarmouth punches a speed bag at Coastal Rehab’s Rock Steady Boxing, a class for people living with Parkinson’s.
Tia Parady, a certified personal trainer and Rock Steady Boxing coach at Coastal Rehab’s Coastal Fit in Cape Elizabeth.
Coach Tia Parady shows off a Rock Steady Boxing sweatshirt, encouraging people to “fight back” against Parkinson’s disease.
Since April, Coastal Rehab has been conducting Rock Steady Boxing classes, aimed at improving quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s disease, at its connected Coastal Fit facility.