WASHINGTON TERRACE — Jean Dixon smashes her fists into the punching bag, exhorted by coach Rob Matthews to deliver rapid combinations.
“I just go with all my heart, everything I’ve got, and it feels good,” said Dixon, 64, of Ogden.
Three times a week, the retired Weber Basin Job Corps teacher attends Rock Steady Boxing class, a workout regimen designed for Parkinson’s disease sufferers.
“I don’t think I’d want to hit a person, but I like to hit those bags,” Dixon said in an interview before a recent class.
She chuckled and added, “I think it’s fun.”
“We call it fighting back against the disease,” Dixon said. “This is real and it really does help us with our symptoms.”
Matthews, 68, started teaching Rock Steady Boxing as a franchisee in Salt Lake County three years ago. He is a certified personal trainer for seniors and formerly worked with Parkinson’s physical therapy patients at the University of Utah.
Dixon and several other Ogden-area people lobbied him to start a class for them closer to home because the Salt Lake drive was tough on them. His Washington Terrace gym opened two months ago.
“It’s pretty miraculous what happens for these folks,” Matthews said. “I had one man come in on a walker, then he was walking with a cane, and pretty soon the cane’s gone.”
Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 by Scott Newman, a former county prosecutor in Indiana who has Parkinson’s.
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, the disease is a neurodegenerative disorder whose symptoms include tremor, limb rigidity and gait and balance problems. Almost 1 million Americans have the disease, which usually strikes people older than 50.
Matthews runs his fighters, as they are called, through a three-part program.
First is a series of balance and strength exercises, following by three five-minute rounds of high-intensity boxing on a heavy bag. Finally, participants do various core exercises.
Richard Van Allen, an 84-year-old Farmington resident, has been taking Matthews’ class for two years, first in Salt Lake and now at the Washington Terrace location.
“Rob tailors it to fit the people who are in the class,” Van Allen said. “Some can’t get down on the floor. There’s everyone from wheelchairs down to me.”
Van Allen, who flew in the Vietnam war, commanded the Hill Air Force Base helicopter rescue unit and later worked in safety jobs for private companies, said the program has reduced balance problems, weakness in his right leg and palsy in his hands.
“I’m not handicapped at all as far as getting around,” he said. “I went pheasant hunting last month and I plan on skiing this year. We’ll see how well I do.”
Matthews said doctors and therapists aren’t sure why boxing seems to be so effective with Parkinson’s sufferers.
One theory is that it forces the body to work around damaged neural pathways and form new routes, he said.
A round of several minutes on the punching bag “is pretty intense,” Matthews said.
“The movement that is required, you are working on all planes, firing on all systems,” he said. “You are having to communicate with your muscles from your toes all the way up to your head, re-establishing these connections.”
He said Rock Steady Boxing treats participants as athletes, not patients, “and they respond.”
“There’s something about hitting something, deep inside of us, from the caveman days or something,” Matthews said. “These folks love it.”
Bob McQueen, of Ogden, a 90-year-old retired school principal, is another of Matthews’s fighters who said the classes have helped him.
“I don’t shake nearly as bad and can still do lots of other stuff,” McQueen said. “I never thought I’d be doing boxing, but I like to hit those bags.”
Dixon, Van Allen and McQueen all said the group dynamic also is key to the experience.
“We kind of reinforce each other,” McQueen said.
“The camaraderie you develop with other people with the same disease is really helpful,” Dixon said. “This is our new normal.”