Punching back: Rock Steady Boxing helps improve the quality of life of those with Parkinson’s disease

  • Rock Steady Boxing participants and their coaches pose for a group picture Friday after one of their classes at Waiakea Recreation Center Boxing Gym in Hilo.
  • John Rozett boxes with Travis Santiago Friday during Rock Steady Boxing at Waiakea Recreation Center Boxing Gym in Hilo.
  • Candace Besse boxes with Terri Cronister Friday during Rock Steady Boxing at Waiakea Recreation Center Boxing Gym in Hilo.
  • Dave Cronister boxes with gym recreation director Shannon Ochi Friday during Rock Steady Boxing at Waiakea Recreation Center Boxing Gym in Hilo.
  • Ray Chang boxes with gym recreation director Shannon Ochi Friday during Rock Steady Boxing at Waiakea Recreation Center Boxing Gym in Hilo.
  • Marlene Goodwin throws a left Friday during Rock Steady Boxing at Waiakea Recreation Center Boxing Gym in Hilo.
  • Herb Kiyabu boxes with wife June Friday during Rock Steady Boxing at Waiakea Recreation Center Boxing Gym in Hilo. (Photos by HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — Boxing gloves up and at the ready, Marlene Goodwin bounces up and down on her feet Friday morning at the Waiakea Recreation Complex, ready for the workout to begin.

Following the count of the coach, she and the rest of the Rock Steady Boxing class punch the air.

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One-two. One-two. One-one-two.

Jab.

Jab.

Jab.

“Elbows in — upper cut,” the coach shouts, and arms swing upward.

Rock Steady Boxing is a nonprofit organization that helps improve the quality of life of those with Parkinson’s disease through non-contact boxing-based exercise.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder affecting neurons in the brain that produce dopamine. Symptoms for the disease, which can develop slowly over time, include tremors, slow movement, stiffness, and gait and balance problems.

There is currently no cure for the disease.

Goodwin, who lives in Pepeekeo, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly four years ago.

She brought Rock Steady Boxing to Hilo, having attended classes in Carson City, Nevada, before she and husband David moved to the Big Island.

“It was just an unbelievable, wonderful program.”

Besides her friends, Goodwin said when she moved, the boxing group was the hardest thing to leave, “and I told my husband the day we get off the plane, we’re going to start working on getting Rock Steady Boxing over here and that was two and a half years ago.”

The program finally launched in Hilo last October and is starting to grow.

Getting the diagnosis is a scary time, Goodwin said, but added that doctors are finally starting to learn about the importance of exercise in treating the disease.

According to the Rock Steady Boxing website, medical research has shown that forced, intense exercise can reduce, reverse and delay Parkinson’s symptoms.

“People with Parkinson’s, especially if they’re a little older or had it for quite a few years, it’s a real effort just getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed and walking all the way to the car to get in the car and to come here,” Goodwin said. “Those are big things — for some people, painful things — and those people keep coming back every class, some people every single class, and there would be no reason to come if they didn’t feel like they were getting something out of it. You wouldn’t torture yourself unless you felt like this was important.”

Goodwin had deep brain stimulation surgery last July to treat her tremors, but other symptoms remain.

Rock Steady, she said, has helped her balance, posture and mental outlook.

Other class members have seen improvements even in short amounts of time.

Larry Gahagan of Pahoa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in July and has attended classes for six weeks.

“I came in a wheelchair and now I walk,” he said.

The program helps by challenging one’s need for items like crutches, Gahagan said.

“Everybody’s very encouraging,” he said. “It’s a great place to feel protected. Us guys who have the disease need all the help they can get, encouragement wise.”

Candace Besse of Hawaiian Paradise Park has been coming for two months and said the boxing classes have done “amazing things.”

Besse, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s almost eight years ago, said she is stronger and can move more easily because of the program.

“This kind of exercise, I feel like it has just pushed a switch and I can move again. As this disease progresses, you lose something, you lose something, you lose something and this gives it back.”

Herb Kiyabu, of Hilo, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2017.

The disease “hit me hard,” he said. “I couldn’t function for the longest time.”

Kiyabu said his balance and equilibrium was weak, but with the training program, he feels much stronger. Instead of a walker, he now only uses a cane occasionally.

The program also gives participants a lot of confidence, he said.

“This program is very good for me.”

While improving strength and stability are two components to the program, John Rozett of Hawaiian Paradise Park, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 12 years ago, said there’s “something about the group camaraderie that helps to make you feel like you’re not alone in all this.”

Others made note of the fellowship the group provides, too.

The Hilo program has three certified coaches. While there isn’t a charge for the classes, donations are collected each class, which helps the Goodwins pay for the group’s affiliation fee for the year, insurance and equipment.

“If everybody just puts in $5 every class, we’ve got enough to make it work,” Goodwin said.

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Rock Steady Boxing meets from 8:30-9:30 a.m. Mondays and Fridays at the Waiakea Recreation Complex boxing gym.

A Parkinson’s disease support group also meets from 2-4 p.m. on the last Friday of each month at the Aging and Disability Resource Center. For more information about the support group, call Fran Calvert at 982-7511.