Fighting Parkinson’s: Yoga Instructor Turns Boxer
Julie Walters is a volunteer, former yoga teacher and a textile artist who enjoys quilting. In the last year, she’s also become a boxer. Her opponent: Parkinson’s disease. Her transformation is unusual, and not one she expected to make in her later years.
Julie taught yoga for over a decade, and she remembers the subtle quiver of her hand as she held a deep stretch in class. Students occasionally inquired about the tremors, but she chalked them up to genetics.
“My dad and grandmother had tremors that they called ‘palsy,’” Julie said. “They were never diagnosed, so I didn’t think much about it at the time.”
The tremors may have been a red flag for someone aware of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but for a healthy, middle-aged woman, it was easy to brush aside the warning signs. Julie’s Parkinson’s set in at a slow but steady rate. And it wasn’t until a decade later that she started having tremors in both hands. Even holding utensils became difficult. With her husband’s encouragement, she visited her primary care physician, who referred her to Neurologist Steven Kosa, MD, with Meritas Health Neurology. Just shy of 60, Julie was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2017.
Although Parkinson’s has no known cause or cure, there are some scientifically-backed defenses. Rock Steady, a popular boxing program for individuals with Parkinson’s, adapts components of traditional boxing that hone agility, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength. Academic studies support the notion that intense exercise, like this noncontact boxing regimen, may be neuro-protective, slowing the disease process.
This research is what piqued the interest of Dr. Kosa, prompting him to contact North Kansas City Hospital’s Community Health & Wellness Department. Recognizing the program could fulfill a need in the Northland, Jill Sartain, Community Fitness Supervisor, and Shanna Watt, Community Education Coordinator, traveled to Indiana for training and education. Shortly after, they launched an NKCH Rock Steady chapter.
Although the future seemed daunting, Julie took her diagnosis in stride. She saw it as more of a speed bump than a hard stop. Motivated to stay healthy, and at Dr. Kosa’s recommendation, Julie enrolled in NKCH’s Rock Steady boxing program.
“Parkinson’s doesn’t define us,” Julie said. “Each time I hit the punching bag, I’m reminded of that.”
Observing a Rock Steady class reaffirms how much participants want to fight Parkinson’s. People of every age, body size, athletic ability and disease stage fill the classes.
During classes, some fumble with the Velcro of their boxing gloves, while others feverously hit the punching bag. This is the “normal” for class participants, and it’s a normal they embrace.
Julie is motivated and challenged in her classes, and that’s by design.
“The coaches really push you,” Julie said. “But they’re there to protect you and ensure you have the correct positioning throughout each drill.”
It’s inspiring how Julie and her exercise partner move from burpee to side plank. And if class participants need extra motivation, the coaches pump a playlist through the speakers that would encourage anyone to get moving.
Embracing the Unknown
The Rock Steady program promotes an improved quality of life, while combatting the disease’s progression. Results don’t happen overnight, and the work is hard. Julie’s reason for going back
to class each time is simple: her newfound interest in textile art. It’s something that brings her joy, but that became more difficult to do as her Parkinson’s progressed. Classes make it easier for Julie to create her art.
“Every time I thread the needle, it’s a celebration,” Julie remarked. “I get to keep doing what I love.”
Everyone in class has a different reason for showing up each week. But the camaraderie they share is something everybody enjoys.
What You Need to Know
Men are 1.5 times more likely than women to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The condition doesn’t only affect the elderly. Nearly 4% of people who are diagnosed are under the age of 50.
Help is Here
Fortunately, the disease can be managed through prescribed medication and physical activity. Starting with just four people and two classes, NKCH now offers nine Rock Steady classes.
If you or someone you know could benefit from NKCH’s Rock Steady program, visit nkch.org/RSB to schedule an assessment.