Three mornings a week, a group of mostly older Lakeland-area residents — many with canes or walkers — gathers at the Kelly Recreation Center for a very special type of boxing class.
They are participants in a program called PunchWorX that helps people with Parkinson’s disease. But they are also warriors and cheerleaders for each other, bonded by their shared struggles with the degenerative disorder that causes uncontrollable movements, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination.
PunchWorX is a nonprofit program created in 2021 by co-founders Marty Hubbard and Jill Spangler.
Hubbard said evidence-based research has found that high-intensity exercise can slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. According to an ESPN study, boxing ranked as the most intense form of training.
Spangler, a physical therapist assistant and home health aide, said she created the class in honor of her dad, Richard Kapocsi, who fought Parkinson’s disease for 20 years before passing away on Aug. 29.
“My goal for the program has always been to be a community outreach program and finding ways to make sure that anybody that wanted to participate could participate,” Spangler said. “If you know anything about Parkinson’s in Polk County, not a lot of hope and not a lot that the county offers to help with the disease.”
Fellow travelers on a difficult road
PunchWorX participant Hollis Hooks, 73, was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2021, but he believes he’s had it for longer.
“I can’t say enough fine things about the group,” said Hooks. “That’s the best thing about the program, the new folks that you meet.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, Parkinson’s Disease is a “progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and parts of the body controlled by nerves.” The Cleveland Clinic calls it an “age-related degenerative brain condition … causing parts of the brain to deteriorate.” It doesn’t have a cure, but there are medicines that improve symptoms.
While the neurological disease impacts everyone differently and is known to cause tremors and muscle stiffness, for Hooks the greatest impact has been on his balance.
“My ability to stand for any length in time is affected by it. I’ve had several falls, a big indication of Parkinson’s,” Hooks said.
Hooks is able to keep up with the class by participating in the no-contact boxing workouts, and sitting down in a chair when he needs to. When he’s moving, he doesn’t have issues; it’s the standing in place that bothers him.
“Nobody looks twice at you when you’re sitting there trying to get your legs together. That part I really appreciate,” Hooks said. “They know what my abilities are, and they don’t look twice when I step aside for a minute.”
He considers PunchWorX physical therapy and a support group packed into one.
“Being able to network at boxing class, it’s everything. You’re all on the same meds,” Hooks said. “Having people to talk to who have been down this road before or after you is very important. We have Christmas parties, get togethers, and we see each other at funerals.”
Program has grown from 5 people to 60 since 2019
Lori Phillips, 67, of Lakeland, enjoys the class so much, she participates four days a week and then volunteers in the other classes. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2012.
“I’ve been in this class for two years and it’s helped me immensely. My muscles are stronger so when I feel like I’m going to fall, I can catch myself,” Phillips said.
The class is an intense hour-long workout. The participants punch punching bags, do warm-up stretches, core exercises, jump rope and even do voice exercises, since that is also something that may be affected by the disease.
“I’m really grateful for the cooldown period. The workouts are strenuous …When you walk out of that room, you feel great. You feel like you’ve exerted yourself,” Hooks said.
The hour-long boxing classes are held at the Kelly Recreation Complex on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. They’ve also added aquatic workouts at Gandy Pool on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 3:45 p.m. and 3:45 to 4:30 p.m., for people who have more trouble with balance.
The program started with five people in 2019, then called Rock Steady Boxing Lakeland. Now, an affiliate of Rock Steady Boxing, PunchWorX has about 60 regulars and four coaches, Spangler said. Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 in Indianapolis and is known for creating non-contact, boxing-inspired fitness routines.
“We know that we’re not going to cure or solve the disease but we definitely want to help people stay as functional as possible and give them the tools to stay as independent as possible so they can have the best quality of life,” Spangler explained.
Fighting for quality of life
Hooks said it has helped him cope with living with the disease. He had to relearn basic things like how to sit up and get up to avoid falls. He has to avoid things he’s always done like climb ladders or play golf.
“It’s a sobering experience. A humbling deal,” Hooks explained, who said he’s also considering moving his family to a one-story home.
He’s grateful the class is available in Lakeland and that Medicare pays for him to be able to utilize Kelly Rec. He has to travel to Gainesville to see his neurologist, who told him during a recent visit that skipping PunchWorx for the summer may have made his health decline, Hooks said. He now has to use a cane.
“It’s kind of like going to school, you can’t skip it. My life is going to be shortened if I don’t get back to work. I know that much,” Hooks said. “I get better when I’m there three times a week.”
According to the National Parkinson’s Foundation, 1.2 million people in the United States will be living with Parkinson’s Disease by 2030. Data shows Florida has 79,990 residents diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, only second behind California.
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