When Marine veteran Guy Hendricks was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at just 47 years old, he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“When I was in the Marines, I was taught how to fight; how to engage the enemy. When I was diagnosed, Parkinson’s was an enemy I didn’t know how to fight,” Hendricks said.
Enter Rock Steady Boxing, an Indianapolis-based non-profit that teaches those with Parkinson’s how to fight back against their disease using a non-contact boxing fitness regimen.
“Rock Steady showed me how to fight Parkinson’s through boxing workouts and a positive attitude,” Hendricks said. “I realize Parkinson’s will someday win the war, but I will not make it an easy win by fighting each daily battle as hard as I can. Rock Steady reawakened the old Marine inside of me and showed me how to fight again.”
Founded in 2006, Rock Steady and its research-based fitness curriculum has 417 locations all over the world, which means more than 20,000 people with Parkinson’s are reaping the benefits. It’s not a cure for the disease, but the program’s well-rounded anaerobic and aerobic components have been known to erase tremors, improve balance and even give people the energy for a set of sprints across a room. The curriculum also teaches boxers more functional movements, like how to transfer from a chair, how to handle stairs and how to fall safely. But, there’s a whole other dimension to it, too.
“It’s more than just a boxing program,” Rock Steady program director and head coach Kristy Rose Follmar said. “The fitness aspect of it and the boxing aspect of it is the easy part. It’s the family and the heart behind Rock Steady that makes this thing so successful.”
Ringing a Golden Glove Champ
More than 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year. Former Marion Country district attorney and prosecutor Scott Newman was one of those people in 2006, when he was just 39 years old.
“Scott was always this sports enthusiast, and he had this bright idea that maybe if he exercised to combat this disease that was stripping him of his movement, it would be helpful,” Rose Follmar explained.
When Newman told his doctor about his idea, she said it was a bad idea. She thought the impairments he’d have in his balance would cause him to hurt himself. Luckily, he didn’t listen to her.
Newman contacted a friend who was a former Golden Gloves boxer, and together, they hung up a heavy bag in Newman’s apartment and began training.
“After just a few weeks, he was able to regain his life. At the time, he was losing his fine motor skills, like signing his name and typing on the computer. Through boxing, he was starting to get those strengths back,” Rose Follmar said. “His confidence was coming back, he was speaking louder and he was able to come out to the public that he had Parkinson’s. Because he was doing something about his disease, he had a story to tell.”
Unleashing Saving Punches
Because Newman found that the boxing regimen worked for him, he figured it would probably help others with Parkinson’s as well. So, he contacted Kristy Rose Follmar, Indiana’s first ever women’s state champion.
Rose Follmar didn’t know much about Parkinson’s at the time, but she did know that the sport saved her life.
She grew up watching Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield on late night television with her “hero” father. Because he loved boxing, the little girl with red hair enjoyed it, too. Then, the unthinkable happened. When she was 13, her father took his own life.
“I felt like I lost my best friend,” she said. “I was angry with my mother and my brother, and started to isolate myself from friends and family. I didn’t know how to control my emotions and my mom decided to buy me a heavy bag. She said, ‘Why don’t you go out into the garage and hit this heavy bag when you’re upset instead of punching holes in your bathroom doors.'”
Rose Follmar took the few boxing moves she learned from her father and worked out her emotions. She even taught her friends how to box when they came over.
“Boxing brought me back into the light, I guess you could say. It was a good stress reliever for me,” she said.
Rose Follmar was a collegiate runner at Ball State University, but when an IT band injury sidelined her, she found a boxing gym and really got to work.
“There was an article about a girl who went to school with me at Ball State who just won some scholarship money for winning the Indiana Golden Gloves,” Rose Follmar said. “I walked into that boxing gym the very next day, wanting to learn how to box for real, and the career just kind of took off.”
She was an amateur fighter for two years and then turned pro at 20. By the time she was 29, she had won two world boxing titles.
So, when Newman invited Rose Follmar to lunch to discuss his boxing experience, she was intrigued by the possibility of introducing the sport to a special population.
“He [Newman] was just telling me how he was feeling like himself again from this boxing training,” she said. “I completely connected with that on a physical level and also on an emotional level. He said it gave him a new lease on life, and I felt the same way.”
Newman immersed her in Parkinson’s literature and the two attended conferences together. Then, they rolled out with Rock Steady.
Triggering the Brain and the Body
The reason why boxing training is so beneficial to those with Parkinson’s is because it targets a wide variety of movements and skill sets.
Boxers work on hand-eye coordination, endurance, footwork, power, speed, strength and agility.
“In a sense, a lot of the things fighters are trained to improve upon are issues for people with Parkinson’s,” Rose Follmar explained. “They have delayed reaction time. They’re losing their dexterity, fine motor skills, speed of movement, balance and core strength. We know there’s a lot of research that backs the fact that forced intense exercise leads to a significant reduction in Parkinson’s symptoms. With a boxing style training regimen, it’s all goal oriented, so the brain is being triggered as well as the body.”
In 2012, Rock Steady opened their ‘Training Camp,’ which is a three-day seminar where people from all over the world get certified in the Rock Steady way of fitness. Then they can take the curriculum back to their own communities.
“People don’t do this for money. These coaches come out because they’ve got these huge hearts and have these diverse backgrounds,” Rose Follmar said. “They want to use their professional experience in health and fitness and make a real difference in these people’s lives.”
‘Church of Rock Steady’
Back to Guy Hendricks.
When he was diagnosed in 2015, his neurologist walked in the room and said, “Sorry, you have Parkinson’s. Here’s your medicine. Go home and sit on the couch, and just don’t hurt yourself.'”
So Hendricks did just that.
“I was in a walker, 60 pounds overweight, scared, depressed and angry,” he said.
To make things worse, he lost his health insurance because he could no longer work. It was actually a blessing in disguise. He sought care at the VA and one of the first things his new neurologist suggested was Rock Steady Boxing.
“I thought, no, I can’t do that. I can’t even stand up. How am I going to box? So, I put it in the back of my mind,” Hendricks said. “The next week, I went to my physical therapist and she said the exact same thing as my neurologist. That’s all my wife needed to hear, so she called Rock Steady behind my back and set up a meeting for us.”
It wasn’t pretty at the start. Hendricks was angry with his wife for arranging the appointment. He “failed” his initial assessment, falling over multiple times, and continued to believe he just couldn’t do it.
That judgement came from many debilitating symptoms. He had a tremor in his right hand so bad it was non-functional. His balance was so poor, if he closed his eyes while standing, he’d fall over. His memory was impaired to the point where he forgot the names of family members and close friends. And, his speech was limited to one-word sentences.
“I knew it was bad when I couldn’t even tell my wife that I loved her. The words just wouldn’t come out,” Hendricks said.
So, under a “It’s not what they can’t do, it’s what they can do” approach, Hendricks got to work.
“From day one, they tell you, ‘We don’t consider you someone with Parkinson’s. We consider you a boxer.’ A lot of people have this notion that Parkinson’s patients are fragile, and Rock Steady is quite the opposite,” Hendricks explained. “If they know I’m not pushing myself as hard as I can, they’re just like a coach or a trainer somewhere else. They’re pushing me to go farther, harder and faster.”
And it’s classmates who are doing the pushing, too.
“I was in my walker during my first class, and one of the other boxers came over, and looked at me and my walker. He had been running back and forth, and he said, ‘Come on, you pansy. Are you going to be a victim or are you going to fight back and join us?’ That’s when I knew this was a totally different place.”
Four months into the program, Hendricks no longer needed a walker. His wife, Sheila, no longer needed to hold him up during class either. He dropped 60 pounds and the tremor in his hand was gone. His mood improved dramatically as well.
“I realized my life wasn’t over,” he said.
.Today, his two-hour long workouts include things like riding a bike 10 miles and lifting weights. He also attends Rock Steady classes three times per week. It doesn’t matter that he lives an hour-and-15 minutes from the gym. The results are worth the trip, but so are the people he’s met along the way.
“We make the drive because of them,” Sheila said. “The connections we’ve made with those people, they’re family. It’s probably the best support group we’ve ever found because he can go talk to the other boxers about their symptoms, or medicine, and you’ll see the ‘cornermen,’ which are the spouses, off to the side, and we kind of get to vent and talk to each other.”
Hendricks loves the program so much that he even became a certified coach.
“I like to say, I go to the Church of Rock Steady because miracles happen there every day. I see people who first come in. They’re depressed, can’t walk and can’t speak. Six months later, they’re now running across the gym or they’re holding a conversation. They’re not ashamed to go out in public anymore.”
Now that Hendricks is a boxer who just happens to have Parkinson’s, he can offer some insight to those who are newly diagnosed.
“I wish someone would have said to me, ‘It’s okay. There is hope.’ Every day when I wake up, I make a decision. I can either lay down and die or I can stand up and fight back,” he said. “If I lay down, I know what’s going to happen. But, if I stand up, what’s the worst thing that’s gonna happen? Parkinson’s doesn’t take a day off, so how can I?”
And with that, Hendricks is back on the bag, turning his body into a fierce weapon.