Special Report: Punching Out Parkinson’s

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – There are more than one million people in the United States who suffer from Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disease on the planet, second to Alzheimer’s. The disease affects people’s movement, and makes some basic functions like tying shoes or brushing teeth extremely difficult. Every year, there are 60,000 new diagnoses.

It’s a disease with no known medical cure, but there is a way to lessen the symptoms. It just might not be what you would expect.

High energy and fast-paced, boxing is often seen as a brutal sport. But people put the gloves on for a different reason.

“I haven’t waved the white flag yet,” said Chuck Turner.

Chuck was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013, five years after he had a liver transplant.

“When we got that news, all I could do was burst into tears,” said Mary Turner, Chuck’s wife.

She says after the diagnosis, their lives changed — there was no more dancing, no more boating. Chuck spent most of his time on the recliner and the more he sat, the worse it became.

“The Parkinson’s was winning,” Mary said. “He was getting tired of fighting it.”

She told him he may have to go to a nursing home — and that’s what got him off the couch.

Chuck said, “I took a couple deep breaths and decided to get to work and see what I could do.”

He found Rock Steady Boxing at the Princess Anne YMCA.

“For the one hour of the day, their disease is gone,” said Wendy Wilkerson, who has been teaching the class since April 2016. “It’s balance, it’s strength, it’s all that. We want to tie it all into the program so that they’re getting that full workout.”

The program has about 60 participants with ranging abilities and varying symptoms — and they all support each other.

“When you’re walking around, you know you do, ‘How you doing today?’ I’m having trouble getting dressed, or rolling around in bed, or whatever and then they share their problems,” said Chuck.

“They come in and they might be down that day, or they might just be having a bad day, or their medicine might not be working,” said Wilkerson. “But then when they leave for the hour, they feel energized.”

Wilkerson breaks her classes up into two groups. Half of them do circuit training while the other half hits.

“I name my machine after one of my wife’s ex-boyfriends so I can really whack it pretty good every now and again,” Chuck said.

It seems counter-intuitive. How does a hard-hitting sport help people who have trouble with basic movements?

“They’re having their weight shift a lot, so that helps with their balance and just getting the extension out when they’re punching to help with their posture. Getting big movements, so you’re forcing the bigger movements because they tend to have a small movement with Parkinson’s,” Wilkerson said.

Boxing is not a cure for the disease. But Dr. Karen Thomas, Director of the Comprehensive Parkinson’s Disease Program at Sentara Neurology Specialists, says exercise increases mobility and reduces the symptoms.

“We do have some evidence from over the last decade that aggressive exercise, staying active, general activity, actually causes a release of chemicals in the brain that may have a little bit of a protective mechanism,” said Dr. Thomas.

She says there’s still a lot of unknowns about the disease, but doctors do know a combination of genetics and external factors cause a malfunction in brain cells.

Dr. Thomas said, “Because we don’t have a cure, and we have no disease-modifying therapy yet, what we do is all about trying to make their quality of life better.”

And along the way, change their outlook.

“The spouses notice, they say, ‘Oh my gosh I would never have believed this would get him up and going again,'” Dr. Thomas said.

Chuck and Mary Turner will tell you — that’s what happened to them. After almost a year of Rock Steady, the changes are visible.

“It helps me get dressed, and brush my teeth, fasten the seat belt in my car, stepping over curbs, being more secure in my balance and things like that,” Chuck said.

“He’s my hero. I’m just so in awe of his resilience,” said Mary.

Chuck says he’s not looking back and he’s ready for the next round.

“I feel like that I’m winning a little bit and I know it’s a progressive disease, but hopefully I can slow it down,” he said.

For people like Chuck, it’s a never-ending fight. But the spirit in the gym shows it’s one worth fighting.

For more information on Rock Steady Boxing, visit their website.