Rock Steady: Fighting Parkinson’s a punch at a time

Michael O’Brien, Jasper, has been participating in Rock Steady Boxing since 2019. He also comes in to help with classes as a volunteer. He enjoys the activity and the camaraderie the class offers. Photos by Matthew Crane.

A group of folks fighting the long-term effects of Parkinson’s Disease meets at the Ferdinand YMCA a couple of days a week and beat the crap out of padded posts, speed bags and a dummy named KJ (which stands for Kristen Junior in memory of a previous coach).

It’s 12 rounds of intense station-to-station work set to a playlist that ranges from Flo-Rida to Billy Ray Cyrus with some Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis sprinkled in. The program, Rock Steady Boxing, helps with Parkinson’s. Repetition, movement, combinations, and encouraging countdowns through the rounds can slow the progress of the degenerative effects of the disease.

Throwing a punch begins in the feet and moves through the legs to the hips and core before exploding through the shoulder, elbow and arm to the end of your fist, connecting with whatever object you are aiming at. Stream those movements together and then combine them into jabs, straights, hooks, and uppercuts with a few ducks, and you’ve got yourself a full body workout that turns into a cohesive flow of mind and body, working to connect again and again.

Coach Lisa Yoder walks the group through the 12-rounds of the circuit training class on Tuesday.

This is one part of the recipe that makes Rock Steady Boxing so successful for the participants at the YMCA. The other parts are about community, communication, and encouragement.

The average age in the group leans heavily toward 70-plus, with a few in their 50s — all in varying degrees of progression with Parkinson’s. And in that lays their commonality. Each is in a personal battle against the disease attacking their motor skills, balance, speech and sensory functions.

“We’re a family,” Coach Lisa Yoder said. “A family that they can open up to express their struggles and their anger. They can vent it here. This is a safe place.”

The class goes through a series of warm-up exercises before heading in to take on the 12-rounds.

The class opens with prayer, followed by an icebreaker before some stretching. On Monday and Tuesday, Lisa asked the groups a poignant question as part of the icebreaker. “What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and found out you didn’t have Parkinson’s?”

“I would get down on my knees and thank God,” said one boxer.

“I would do the same, and then I would call you (Lisa) to let you know I wouldn’t be in,” said another, eliciting laughter from the room.

“I’d tie one on,” said another, adding to the laughter.

“I’d thank God and then go tie one on,” added the next boxer.

“I’d go for a drive.”

“I’d jump out of bed!”

“Everything would be different,” one woman commented thoughtfully.

“I’d try to help others and save them,” said a man from his wheelchair.

Lisa looked around at them, “I love my job, but sometimes wished I didn’t have to do it,” she said.

These icebreakers aren’t always so heartbreakingly beautiful. Some days they will talk about what song they would sing if they were doing karaoke or who in the group would be the best news anchor or comedian. Parkinson’s can be a very isolating disease, and the questions allow them to lower those walls a bit before the muscle stretching begins in preparation for the punching.

80-year-old Lee Wright smacks KJ in the jaw with a hard jab during Tuesday’s class. Lee said if she misses any classes, the disease lets her know it. She’s been battling Parkinson’s for about two years.

Building on this camaraderie, the boxers are enthusiastically encouraged to participate in countdowns at the end of each round. Sometimes by the coach or coordinator but other times, one of the boxers will holler, “I can’t hear you!” to up the volume. Lisa pointed out that yelling is another part of the program’s therapy.

“A lot of times, they can become very quiet,” she explained.

Exercising their voices fights that aspect of the disease.

Before the class ends, Lisa will guide them through a game requiring them to pull different facts and figures from their head. A neural exercise that adds to community-building and helps fight the cognitive effects of the disease.

Steve Hessig (left) smacks gloves with Steve Davis between rounds during class Monday.

Lisa has been coaching for more than two years and coordinating the program since the beginning of the year — if she ever decides to step down, KJ, the punching dummy, will likely become LJ. But it’s hard to say if that will ever happen; she loves working with them. “It isn’t a job for me,” she said.

Working with the participants, helping them see changes in their physical strength and even reversing some of the degenerative effects of the disease is fulfilling for Lisa. She is inspired by every class as they persevere.

“We want to present to people that there is hope out there,” she said. “That they aren’t alone in their struggles.”

Bill Wissel, Huntingburg, takes on a round with the speed bag during Tuesday’s class. The 75 year old has been battling Parkinson’s for two and a half years.

Rock Steady Boxing was developed in Marion County in 2006 by Scott C. Newman and his friend and Golden Glove boxer Vince Perez. After Scott had been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40, Vince designed a program that attacks Parkinson’s at its vulnerable neurological points. Scott and Vince founded Rock Steady Boxing as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization and is now a program used worldwide to battle the progression of Parkinson’s.

In October, the Tri-County YMCA celebrated the fifth year of offering Rock Steady Boxing. In those five years, 78 boxers have participated in the program designed to fight Parkinson’s Disease. During the celebration, Coach Yoder recognized several fighters for their commitment since the beginning of the program in 2017. Fred Heilers, Ron Schnell and Jerry Hohl have combined to participate in over 1,100 classes. Also honored were Donna Weyer (volunteer) and Mike O’Brien (volunteer and boxer). They also recognized Coach Tony Marchand and Advanced Rehabilitation Inc., which has been a sponsor of the program since its inception. Currently, 28 boxers are participating in Rock Steady classes Monday through Thursday at the Y.

For more information or to support the program, contact Lisa Yoder at lisa@tricountyymca.org or call 812-367-2323.

Carol Severson of Santa Claus takes swings at Trainer Tony Marchand during a round on Monday.


  1. Way to go I live in Petersburg and work in Jasper I’m 44 and I have Huntington’s disease which Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s and ALS is all together is Huntington’s.
    I’m only suffering the Cognitive issues right now thank goodness

  2. I love to see all the dedication and hard work the coaches and boxers are doing. You all ROCK!

Comments are closed.