Rock Steady Boxing engages Parkinson's patients

It’s easy to take for granted simple daily tasks, such as buttoning your shirt before heading off to work or preparing dinner after you arrive back home. With the onset of Parkinson’s disease comes life-changing symptoms that make even simple routines daunting.

But programs such as Rock Steady Boxing offer a way to fight back against the neurodegenerative disorder.

“It keeps them active. It keeps them going,” said Scott Brubaker Jr.

Brubaker, a physical therapy assistant at Comber Physical Therapy and Fusion Chiropractic in New Town, established the Williamsburg iteration of the physical therapy program in June 2016. It launched with six members meeting twice a week, but it now holds 14 classes and reaches 70 people — or fighters, as Brubaker refers to them.

“I’ve always loved helping people. But I wanted to do something different,” he said.

He asked area doctors for suggestions about issues to address, and Parkinson’s was a frequent suggestion.

“Things you used to do inherently, habitually, now you have to focus on,” said Frank Tullis, one of the Williamsburg program’s original six fighters.

Parkinson’s appears as nerve cells in the brain break down over time. The symptoms manifest as the cells producing dopamine — a chemical that sends messages between nerve cells — are lost, and abnormal brain activity develops.

Contributing factors include environmental triggers, such as head trauma or exposure to toxins, and genetics. But Dr. Lyzette Velazquez, a neurologist at Riverside Health System in Williamsburg, said genes only account for about 10 percent of cases, and other factors remain largely unknown.

“Most of them we don’t know. We don’t understand yet,” she said.

Velazquez said research indicates onset begins about 20 years prior to obvious symptoms. Those come in forms such as tremors in the arms or legs, difficulty swallowing, slow speech or difficulty balancing.

She said Parkinson’s is “very common” in the Williamsburg area; she averages two new diagnoses of the disease each month.

She recommends Rock Steady to patients as a treatment option in addition to medication and other forms of exercise, such as walking, golfing, swimming or other activities they enjoy.

Brubaker said he saw an interesting concept growing across the country: Rock Steady Boxing. He ventured to Indianapolis in April 2016 to attend a training camp and returned to Williamsburg a certified head coach.

Making a difference

After taking more than a week off from the class due to a bout with bronchitis, participant Tullis was back Thursday and eager for another session.

“It’s been tremendous,” he said. “It makes a difference.”

Velasquez said all of her patients who are involved in the program, male and female, have seen a delay in the progression of the disease and an improvement in their symptoms.

“Their balance is better. Flexibility is better. Coordination is better. Strength is better. Attitude is better,” she said.

Erika Stephan, Comber’s owner and CEO, said the program provides an alternative option to treatments such as opioids, injections and surgeries as a unique therapeutic support group.

“They can be proactive,” she said. “It lets them be who they’re supposed to be.”

The Williamsburg program’s oldest fighter is 87, and although it was mostly men during its infancy, women are joining and enjoying it as well.

“They want to be challenged,” Brubaker said. “They’re working really, really hard.”

Always an adventure

Each class begins with the group standing in a circle, warming up with an activity such Tai Chi. The fighters then don their boxing gloves, break off into pairs and rotate through the main course of exercises, which incorporates traditional equipment such as punching bags and a training dummy dubbed “Rocky.”

Beyond boxing, the fighters embrace activities that hone their strength and balance, such as rapidly alternating between kneeling and standing, and ones that emphasize coordination, such as trying to hit a ball as it soars through the air. At a class last Thursday, fighters cooled down by bouncing a ball around and trying to catch it.

Brubaker said he mixes up the offerings each session to keep the class fresh. He and his team of trainers monitor the session, but as participants move around to different stations, they’re largely independent.

The class helps the fighters stave off the stiffness that comes with Parkinson’s. Tasks such as getting out of bed, standing up from chairs, rolling over and preventing falls become simpler.

“I could see the difference after I started here,” said Mike Mellen, 73.

Brubaker said it helps delay the disease’s progress and release frustration simultaneously.

“His program has reached so many people,” said Melanie Lake, who travels from Gloucester to attend classes. “You can’t see what they’re feeling. It’s different for every single person.”

She began showing symptoms of early onset Parkinson’s in 2002, and now 49-years-old, she sees the program as a means of taking back control over her life.

“I was getting depressed, especially because of my age,” she said. But after a year and a half in the program, she said she’s found hope. “I love coming here. I can’t wait to come. I don’t feel sorry for myself.”

Patients discover the program through friends and the Rock Steady Boxing website, but Brubaker said most come based on referrals from area neurologists who have researched it.

Applicants go through a safety assessment that takes into account details such as their fall history and activity level. If the program is deemed too overwhelming, they get some one-on-one treatment at Comber as they work toward joining. Others — about 50 percent — jump straight in.

Fighters attend the class at least twice a week, and some attend more frequently at no additional cost. Brubaker said most still drive themselves to class, while a few carpool or take advantage of transportation services such as the RIDES program.

Doctors measure the impact of Parkinson’s through various tests, including having the patient stand up from a chair without the use of hands and pulling from behind to simulate falling — forcing the patient to maintain balance.

Fighter Ed Kelley, 74, joined the program as he dealt with symptoms such as tremors in his right arm and his voice getting quieter. Two years later, he said the combination of Rock Steady and medication have eliminated the tremors.

“That is all taken care of,” he said. “The program has definitely made me stronger.”

Tullis, Mellen and Lake said that during their time in the program, their symptoms have also stopped worsening and functions have improved.

Tullis also praised the positive impact of the people and diversity he’s found within his group of fighters — all different ages, genders and personalities.

Brubaker limits the classes to about 10 people in an effort to foster deeper relationships. Members regularly meet for extracurricular activities such as bowling or a walk through Freedom Park.

“We’re trying to make it more of a lifestyle,” Brubaker said. “It’s more like we’re doing something about it.”


Comber Physical Therapy and Fusion Chiropractic is located at 5388 Discovery Park Blvd. For more information on the Rock Steady Boxing program, visit or call 903-4230.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by email at, by phone at 757-790-3029 or on Twitter @sethbirkenmeyer.

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