Nobody uses the wheelchair accessible parking spot in front of Rock Steady Boxing. It’s Thursday morning, and the rest of the parking lot is full at the industrial park just northwest of Indianapolis.
Inside the gym, a gaggle of about 30 people clad in workout clothes lines up along the apron of a boxing ring. Forty-year-old men are elbow to elbow on the ropes with women in their 80s. Black, white, truckers, retired military, housewives and musicians. Some of their hands are taped, ready for the starting bell. Many of them wear a different shade of the same Rock Steady T-shirt, back emblazoned with the slogan “Fight back.”
All of these fighters have a common, insidious foe: Parkinson’s disease. If any of these patients were trying to straighten a stooped posture or still a trembling limb for the sake of their classmates, Kristy Rose Follmar quickly diffuses any pretense. A drill sergeant with short red hair, broad shoulders and a sleeveless navy T-shirt that reads “COACH,” Follmar addresses her pupils as “Parkies,” shorthand for people with Parkinson’s disease. Her voice echoes in the metal rafters high above as she orders the class to spread out across the concrete floor and stretch.
“Shake everything out!” she says. Then a smile: “On purpose!”
“You’ve got to laugh about things,” Follmar later says. “It gets pretty heavy at times.”
Heavy, as in a man falling and the entire class cheering him on as he crawls back to his feet. As in a husband coming to class with his stricken wife to be her “corner man,” working out alongside her and helping her face this relentless and progressive attack on her nervous system. As in regulars suddenly not showing out of shame or frustration or depression, or because the disease has temporarily — or finally — prevailed, as it inevitably does.
There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be confronted. In this gym, Follmar and her team teach people how to fight — literally. Ten years ago, Follmar helped start the first Rock Steady, a non-profit gym that preaches the use of repetitive, non-contact boxing training to improve Parkinson’s patients’ strength and coordination to help them stave off this unrelenting disease.
The idea has been contagious. What started with six members in a cramped Indianapolis shop has spread to 36 states and Italy, Australia and Canada.
When the stretching is done, Follmar walks over to the stereo and pushes play on an ’80s and ’90s R&B mix. As Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” comes on, she sets the digital timer for four-minute rounds. She slips on a pair of red punching mitts and slaps them together.
“All right, Parkies,” she says. “Let’s go!”
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