With every punch he throws, Jimmy Achord battles Parkinson's disease.
Since his diagnosis four years ago, the 65-year-old has exercised daily as the nervous system disorder threatens to show its feared symptoms — hand tremors, slurred speech and slowed movements.
Achord's newest tactic against the disorder is the Rock Steady Boxing class. It's just for Parkinson's patients and teaches him to jab, uppercut and dance like a butterfly.
“I want to fight against the effects of the disease," Achord says. "You can only hold it off for so long. That’s just what I’m trying.”
While Rock Steady teaches boxing-style training, participants never actually punch one another. They stretch, shadow box with weights and hit the heavy bag, all to preserve strength and balance.
In a backroom of the Southside YMCA in Baton Rouge, the class of six meets for an hour twice a week. Following warm-ups and stretches, they grab their gloves to partner up and practice punch combinations.
"Who's my partner?" says B.J. Bement as he straps on his gloves. "I've got some flood frustrations."
A stocky 47-year-old, Bement concentrates on his punches — a direct, quick jab and a powerful cross. Later, when he hits the heavy bag, he punishes it.
After his diagnosis three years ago, Bement couldn't keep his job as an operator at a chemical plant. For a while, he felt rudderless and stayed at home.
"If you isolate yourself, that's almost as bad physically as it is mentally," he says during a water break.
Exercise keeps Bement focused, he says, and becoming active again restored his confidence.
"I can't work a 12-hour shift, but I can come and punch a bag for an hour," he said.
Beginning in May, instructor Melissa Cantrell has led the Rock Steady class at the Southside YMCA in Baton Rouge. Fit and energetic, Cantrell demonstrates every movement and shouts advice, changing segments often to make it interesting.
Cantrell, 46, learned of Rock Steady three years ago when she began training to teach kickboxing. Both of her parents live with Parkinson's, and she knows how much regular activity helps the disease, which affects more than 1.5 million Americans.
"Between my love of fitness and my parents, it just made sense," Cantrell says. "It was something I had to do."
While nearly any exercise benefits Parkinson's patients, boxing works well because of the intense, full-body workout it requires. They lift small weights, practice footwork and put all their weight into uppercuts.
"We want them to come out of their comfort zones, and boxing does that," she says.
After punching the bags, the class switches to calisthenics, hopping from side to side, squats and "ninja kicks." They combine some of the movements. Some hold onto chairs for balance, and others stand independently.
"We don't just use our bodies," Cantrell yells. "We use our minds!"
Exercising the brain is as important as working the body, Cantrell says. Pulling together punch combinations keeps the brain sharp. She changes the workout every few minutes so no one can check out.
In Parkinson's, certain nerve cells in the brain break down and die. While doctors are unsure what causes the disease, environmental factors and exposure to certain chemicals seem to play a role.
Some with the disease feel trapped in their own bodies as tremors and shaking take over.
Strapping on boxing gloves to fight those effects creates the opposite effect, says Sally Palmer, 62. She has control over her body.
“It’s just helped overall with my view of myself," Palmer says, "that I can do whatever I set my mind to.”
For more information on Rock Steady Boxing in Baton Rouge, call the Southside YMCA at (225) 766-2991 or visit YMCABR.org online.
Rock Steady Boxing is also offered in New Orleans. For information on New Orleans area classes, call (504) 416-4360.