Phoebe Packs a Punch Against Parkinson’s
By Danielle Sanchez, Phoebe Messenger Intern. Published in the Phoebe Messenger, Spring/Summer 2022 issue; reprinted with permission.
Residents of Phoebe Berks Village in Wernersville, Pa., are packing a punch against Parkinson’s, literally. Donning regulation gloves and letting out battle cries, they follow their enthusiastic instructor, Michelle Franks, as she takes them through an intense warm-up, workout, and closing with positive affirmations. For some, this is their third workout this week. This passion is the beauty of Rock Steady Boxing (RSB).
Rock Steady Boxing is the first of its kind in the United States, a “non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum” designed specifically to help participants manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease — a way to fight back.
RSB uses scientific studies to design a program that “attacks Parkinson’s at its vulnerable neurologic points,” slowing disease progression and improving quality of life. Since there is no cure for Parkinson’s, mitigation techniques, such as specialized exercise programs, are vital to maintaining strength, dexterity, and control over one’s body.
As a lifelong martial artist (I say as I’m only 22 years old), I am no stranger to the incredible benefits a martial arts lifestyle can have on a person. I have taught children and adults, and I have invaluable experiences from childhood through my teenage years and into adulthood. However, I never got to see firsthand how martial arts has benefited older adults. Learning about the incredible Rock Steady Boxing curriculum warmed my heart, further fueled my passion for martial arts, and showed me even more positive impacts of the practice.
Phoebe Berks Village is the first Phoebe Ministries campus to implement the Rock Steady Boxing program after completing a rigorous certification process to gain a yearly license. The topic came up in conversation with Jean Gerhard, director of wellness at Phoebe Berks, when a resident with Parkinson’s mentioned the program. Franks also recalled a group of residents visiting a place that offered RSB and sharing their rave reviews with her. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the initial plans, putting the project on hold time and time again. Still, the love and desire for Rock Steady Boxing remained strong through it all. RSB was finally established at Phoebe Berks in August 2021. Gerhard said it best when she claimed, “It was meant to be.”
This incredible program includes a physical therapy assessment and a flexible in-class curriculum so that residents at all stages of the disease have the opportunity to benefit from exercises catered to what they need.
Residents with Parkinson’s have access to four 90-minute classes a week where they can get their fill of stress-busting, Parkinson’s butt-kicking action, channeling their inner boxer training for the biggest fight of their life. In just one class, residents can sit, stand, and walk while landing powerful hits to punching bags, work through balance and strength-training circuits, and learn one-on-one with coaches.
Stretching and positive affirmations bookend the rather intense workout, uniting mind, body, and soul. Rock Steady Boxing does more than just improve participants’ physical health through this curriculum. It also boosts mental and emotional health, showing the world that they are forces to be reckoned with. Franks calls the curriculum a “big basket of different techniques,” all designed to help combat Parkinson’s in unique ways.
These influential residents are doing more than fighting the disease; they also fight against the stigma surrounding older adults, especially older adults living in senior living communities. As Phoebe Berks Village resident and RSB volunteer coach George Biechler said, “There are no victims among the RSB participants, and no pity parties … make no mistake, the RSB boxing maneuvers are legitimate.” And the instructors are, too.
To become a licensed Rock Steady Boxing instructor, Franks underwent more than 20 hours of online training, including a written and practical exam. She doesn’t regret a single minute of it. “It’s the inspiration,” said Franks. “I could have a million things going on in my mind, and I will not let anything distract me from that class. We are a family. We fight together.”
Rock Steady Boxing is just one way Phoebe Berks Village provides the healthiest lifestyle possible for all residents, showing that they don’t just live there — they thrive — and the residents participating in RSB are definitely noticing the benefits.
“When I’m walking back [after RSB], I am walking better. I feel more coordinated,” said 10-year resident Sandy Leidich. She saw other residents going to RSB before her Parkinson’s diagnosis. She knew, after being diagnosed, that going to Rock Steady Boxing would be “the best deterrent to slow the progression.” Leidich also plays in a piano quartet, helps residents with basic technology questions, and loves being social while pushing forward with her incredibly positive attitude. “My glass is always half full,” she said enthusiastically.
There are plans to extend Rock Steady Boxing to other Phoebe campuses and even extend participation to the public. The hope is to reach as many people with Parkinson’s as possible, providing them with all the tools needed to fight back against the disease and find their inner strength. It’s clear from all the warriors I have spoken with — they’re strong, fierce, and ready for the fight.
NORMA ZIMMERMAN: From Half-Marathoner to Rock Steady Boxer
Phoebe Berks Village resident Norma Zimmerman has traded her running shoes for boxing gloves. An avid sewer of beautiful quilts, Zimmerman is also a dedicated member of Rock Steady Boxing and has experienced the physical and mental impacts of the program firsthand.
At first, she was uncertain, wondering how the curriculum would benefit her, but her skepticism quickly vanished. “After a couple of months, I was so impressed at what I was able to do at that point then…shuffling to the left and right,” Zimmerman said, the excitement in her voice bringing a smile to my face.
The benefits go beyond just the physical. “There is a bond together with the eight of us,” Zimmerman said, regarding her fellow Rock Steady Boxers, “they felt more accepted and in tune with what’s going on.” The cycle of encouragement is truly inspiring, she added.
And this half-marathon runner has always had martial arts in her heart.
“I wanted to do the kickboxing or the karate, but I never followed through with it … maybe that’s why I enjoy it as much as I do,” she said.
We bonded over our love for the sport and ended our call with promises that I would come to teach her some kickboxing. A promise I can’t wait to keep.
DIANE BRUBAKER: A Lifelong Learner Fights Back
As a former early childhood professor and preschool teacher, Diane Brubaker is well versed in the critical developmental stages of children. Her passionate drive to understand behaviors and dissect brain functions comes in handy as she tries to figure out how Parkinson’s affects her own day-to-day life, and how programs like Rock Steady Boxing help her fight back.
Brubaker, a cottage dweller at Phoebe Berks Village, naturally uses her academic and scientific skills to examine her thinking, movement, and behavior. “I notice subtle physical changes and even differences in the way my brain processes,” said Brubaker, “but I keep going. I don’t let Parkinson’s define me.”
Diagnosed four years ago, Brubaker began her quest to battle Parkinson’s by staying as physically active and mentally informed as possible. She and some Phoebe friends were part of the force that brought RSB to Phoebe’s attention. “I read about Rock Steady and found a class close by, but it was really expensive,” said Brubaker. “That’s when we approached the Phoebe team.”
Today, Brubaker attends as many classes as possible. “From the first class, I noticed how much better I slept,” she said, reflecting on her early experience and the notable influence of the session.
“Rock Steady also helps with my speech,” she explained as she described how the gym coaches encourage group “shout-outs” to combat the onset of common voice issues associated with Parkinson’s.
Brubaker described a “team spirit and enthusiasm that helps keep me going.” She and her boxing buddies are clearly very tight. “We’re not going down without a fight!” she said with a determined smile.
GEORGE BIECHLER: Phoebe Berks Resident and RSB Volunteer Coach
George Biechler might not have Parkinson’s, but that does not stop him from supporting his fellow Phoebe Berks Village residents as they fight back against the disease. Believing he has a “personal score to settle with Parkinson’s” after watching his wife, Nancy, battle the disease, Biechler assists residents during Rock Steady Boxing classes. He has earned the honorary title of “Coach.”
“I am just amazed at their resiliency,” Biechler said, emphasizing the dedication the participants have to this program while also demonstrating his commitment to them. He is responsible for ensuring the RSB participants keep their balance, helping them remember the punching combinations, and keeping them motivated even when they get tired.
Franks, he said, is the real motivator behind it all. “At the end of each session, they form a circle around a participant, and Michelle leads them in a chant: ‘You scream, I scream, we all scream for dopamine!’ She gets them yelling and celebrating no matter how tired they are.” Gratitude and admiration fuel his words.
“Some of them [RSB participants] were reluctant to socialize at the beginning, and they have become more outgoing and open to sharing their emotions,” Biechler said, and the same goes for him. I first learned about Biechler and his experiences through a beautiful and passionate article he wrote about his life and his Rock Steady Boxing journey. Biechler had little room for emotion in his writing projects as a financial and technical writer. Still, writing soon became an outlet for him. Other than going “to the gym six-seven days a week,” Biechler found writing as a way to express his emotions. Paired with his RSB coaching, it has helped him tremendously.
Danielle Sanchez is a recent graduate of Lafayette College and a lifelong martial artist.
As part of Lafayette’s Explore and Connect Externship program, she authored this story for the Messenger after spending a week learning about Phoebe and getting to know its residents.
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