Boxing program help Parkison’s disease patients deal with their symptoms

Framed by boxing speed bags hanging along one wall and heavy bags along another, Tambra Wilkerson barks out quick orders to her sweaty charges as rock music blasts away in the background.

 

“I should hear some noise,” she calls out. “Use those voices.”

Cathy Hawkes calls out “One-two, one-two” as husband Rodney bats at pads on each of her hands. John Rentz punches away in the air as he watches his coach, Harry Shelton, shadowboxing alongside him. As the group drops for pushups, Kathleen Reynolds carefully and deliberately lines up over her pink boxing gloves. For a group battling movement disorders, everyone seems to be in motion at once during the Rock Steady Boxing class in a small refurbished building behind a church. And now they are going to need to make a move permanently.

After getting permission to use the building in February, the church is now merging with another and the property is going to be put up for sale, so the boxing class needs to find a new home and is looking to raise money to do it, said Wilkerson, who founded Day One Fitness as a nonprofit gym to provide exercise programs for people with Parkinson’s.

When they got use of the current building, it needed a lot of work but they were not discouraged, she said.

“All of the boxers chipped in their time and effort,” Wilkerson said. “A lot of their heart and soul has gone into that place.”

They had hoped to be there three years but that changed when the church decided to merge.

“Everyone is rallying around and saying, ‘We did this before, we can go do this again,’ ” Wilkerson said. “They’re not afraid of working and fighting for what they want, and they’ve got as much invested in this as anybody.”

The Revivify Church is buying the former Adventure Crossing, and the group plans to buy an acre at that property to build a new home, Wilkerson said. The church is giving them time to raise the $300,000 or so she thinks they will need to complete it.

Those who are regulars and even some who are newer to the program can’t say enough about how much it has helped them. When Wilkerson first met Reynolds, 69, almost two years ago, she noticed that she stood very close to her husband.

“I couldn’t go anywhere without him right there holding onto me,” said Reynolds, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015. “It’s kind of scary when you have no freedom to (move). It’s quite debilitating to think, I can’t even reach over the desk, reach across somewhere to get something or walk across to the other side of the kitchen counter if I wanted to because I would freeze. Your legs don’t listen to your brain. It’s like you’ve got glue on your feet.”

She didn’t know what to expect when she started the boxing program, but within a couple of months Reynolds sent a video to Wilkerson of herself jogging down the beach. She found herself feeling her feet wanting to move in coordination with her punches, enjoying the coordination of her movements and properly striking the bag.

“You feel alive when you actually are hitting it right,” Reynolds. “When you’re hitting it right, your whole body is into it. Then you know you are doing some good.” In the first year of the program, she cut the amount of medication she needed in half and now feels worse over the weekend when she is not doing the program.

Rodney Hawkes was in similar shape when he started the program in February 2016, Cathy Hawkes said.

“When he started, he could not stand up straight,” she said. “He could not get up and down out of a chair without assistance.”

But within a couple of months, they were shopping for new furniture and he was trying out chairs on his own, Cathy Hawkes said.

“You wouldn’t think something like this would have such a big impact so soon,” she said. “It was really amazing to see him change.”

Before the program he was losing his voice, a common ailment with Parkin­son’s that can also signal trouble with swallowing, Cathy Hawkes said. It’s why Wilkerson encourages them to yell during the class, to keep using and strengthening those muscles.

Larry Brown, pastor of Victory Baptist Church in North Augusta for 42 years, has been battling Parkinson’s for four years, and he noticed it had affected his voice to the point he couldn’t carry on a phone conversation.

But after a few weeks with the boxing program there was a noticeable difference in church.

“I had the best Sunday I’ve had in a long time,” Brown said. “People noticed it. I had a lot of people say you’re stronger in the pulpit then you were a month ago. My voice is stronger.”

Recently, Wilkerson began accepting early-stage Alzheimer’s patients into the program at the urging of Dr. John Morgan, director of the Movement and Memory Disorder Programs at AU Medical Center.

“A lot of times patients with Alzheimer’s can get apathy where they just want to sit around and not do much,” he said. “Sometimes they can have depression. All of my Parkinson’s patients have told me how fun it is to do this exercise and how much they get out of it, both with their spouse participating alongside them.”

It can be beneficial for the caregiver to take out some frustrations on a boxing bag, Morgan said. Exercise in general has been shown to help improve cognition as well as the challenge of following the directions Wilkerson calls out.

“Novel tasks and physical activity, getting aerobic capacity up, getting your heart beating faster probably can only help these patients,” Morgan said. “And hopefully stave off the problems that they deal with.”

Wilkerson is hoping to create a separate program for the Alzheimer’s patients once she gets enough for a new class, and she is thinking about some new offerings, such as ballroom dancing. She can tell the stories of the people in her program almost as well as they can, and she shares in their small victories.

“It’s just been an amazing thing to me to watch people gain that (ability) back and then see hope come back into their lives,” Wilkerson said.

 

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

Learn more

If you would like to help Day One Fitness build a new home for its programs, go to dayone fitness.networkforgood.com/projects/41765-tambra-wilkerson-s-fundraiser. Learn more about the program at www.dayonefitness.org.

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