Every year, 60,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). An estimated 10 million people worldwide currently live with it. Michael J. Fox, Alan Alda, Neil Diamond, Linda Rondstadt, George H. W. Bush, and Janet Reno are well-known names among them. So were Muhammed Ali, Charles Schulz, and Robin Williams.

The cause of PD is unknown, and its progression and symptoms can vary from person to person, so there is no standard treatment. In addition to coping with external symptoms that can include tremors, diminished motor skills, loss of balance, and slurred speech, patients often cope with invisible symptoms as well. There is no known cure, yet scientists are gaining new insights, and treatment is ever-evolving. In addition to new medications and clinical therapies, many of today’s patients are fighting the disease through specialized exercise programs.

One popular program, designed to give PD a counterpunch, is Rock Steady Boxing. Developed in 2006, it’s a rigorous, non-contact workout that focuses on balance, hand-eye coordination, flexibility, and stamina. There is no sparring, but boxers don gloves and hit bags. Every boxer’s care partner is encouraged to participate in the class.

Two notable Memphians who have become enthusiastic Rock Steady boxers are Nancy and Dick Barnhart, co-founder and CEO Emeretis of Barnhart Crane and Rigging, the company that erected the Memphis Pyramid. Married 63 years this month, the adventurous and active couple’s life together included building and running a business, raising three children, and exploring much of the world alone on their sailboat. Five years ago, at the age of 80, Dick was diagnosed with PD. 

“There is a typical walk,” explains Nancy, who holds a nursing degree. “A shuffle that I first noticed. I told our doctor that Dick might have Parkinson’s. She referred us to a neurologist who put him on medications. That’s what a neurologist does. They typically don’t say much about exercise.”

Dick noticed a loss of upper arm strength and started counteracting that by working out at the YMCA. Last winter, a friend told him about Rock Steady Boxing, and now both he and Nancy are hooked. They attend the program at Christ United Methodist Church in East Memphis three times a week. Like many Parkinson’s patients around the U.S., they are literally punching back at the disease,

“In my case,” Nancy says, “I do all of the exercises and help him put on his gloves. I can attend without having to pay, so it’s a two-for-one. Dick drives well, but some people in the class are no longer able to drive, so someone else brings them and then participates in the class.”

“There’s a social component, we like the people, and we’ve got a good gang here.” Dick adds, “And we’ve got great coaches.”

Two of their coaches are Jan and De’Ann Averwater. Jan has been the church’s Athletic and Fitness Director for 28 years. “A church should serve the community,” Jan says. “Anyone can work out or go to a gym, but what about those special populations?”

She goes on to say that one of the most striking qualities of her Rock Steady boxers is their upbeat attitude. “I teach other classes, and people sometimes complain, but this group is different. I think when you’re struck with a disease, the flowers look prettier, and you’re just happier to be a part of life, and to have life.”

Both Nancy and Dick say that his condition hasn’t gotten worse in the five years since his diagnosis. They credit this success to their active lives that include ongoing projects on their country acreage, time with their family, a happy marriage, and regular rigorous exercise.

There currently are five Rock Steady Boxing programs available in Memphis. Visit Rocksteadyboxing.org/find-a-class.

By Caroline Sposto

Photo by Tindall Stephens