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New program punches back at Parkinson’s disease

Rock Steady Boxing combines physical and cognitive training

Amy van Weelderen is a part-time cornerwoman and a full-time realist.

When her husband Floris was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease four years ago, the pair faced a life-altering, sink-or-swim scenario.

They both chose the latter.

“I look at it as though something like this is going to happen to all of us as we age — maybe it’s cancer for some, in our case it’s Parkinson’s,” she said. “Even the healthiest person can have severe back pain. The key is how you deal with it.”

Floris is dealing with “it” through a new method of Parkinson’s therapy that entails perseverance through punching. Last month the couple enrolled in classes at Rock Steady Boxing, a program run out of Seacity Fitness on Howe Street.

While there is no physical, person-to-person punching like in traditional boxing, the Rock Steady modus operandi targets speed, focus, balance, hand-eye coordination and other factors that are directly affected by Parkinson’s.

Each 60-minute session includes stretching, cardio, circuit training, pounding on a heavy bag and weight training. Participants in the Vancouver program, one of only four in Canada, range in age between their 40s and 80s.

But before the sweating starts, the group gathers for an introduction and some cheer.

“It’s a good ice breaker and it helps to build camaraderie among the participants,” said Allie Saks, an occupational therapist who leads the Vancouver classes. “A lot of our clients can be socially isolated or embarrassed to go out in public and do something like this because of their symptoms. This is a really nice way for our participants to make connections and fight that collective fight with others who are going through the same thing that they are.”

Floris’ fight with Parkinson’s began four years ago, when he was 46. Having previously served in the military for 24 years, he relies on the type of iron-clad resiliency that was hammered home over those decades when it comes to improving his lot in life.

“I set goals and see them through,” he said. “I like to say you either lead, follow or get out of the way. There isn’t really an alternative.”

Floris had previously been enrolled in CrossFit programs and the Israeli martial art known as Krav Maga.  While he still works full time, the long days behind a desk, coupled with his condition, left him sedentary.

Ironically enough, it was time in front of the boob tube that led Floris down his current path.  Last fall he and Amy saw a profile on Rock Steady on 60 Minutes and contacted the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind. They were then put in touch with Saks, whose motivation to begin teaching the courses also came from the same 60 Minutes episode. 

Floris has been sweating it out since the beginning of June, and both he and Amy have seen a marked difference — particularly between the ears.

“Rock Steady isn’t just about improving your physical ability,” Floris said. “Many people fall into depression when they are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but my brain feels good after a workout. I feel focused.”

“I see a change in his attitude,” Amy added. “It’s definitely been uplifting for his spirit.”

As his cornerwoman, Amy helps with everything from the tangible — putting on Floris’ gloves, wiping down sweat and helping with equipment set up — to being a de facto spokesperson and cheerleader.

“This is not a wussy class — regardless of your physical or cognitive ability, this is extremely demanding,” she said. “Nobody goes in there with an attitude and nobody cares about what you can or can’t do. That’s the number one thing for everyone — there are no alternate plans for people with Parkinson’s, so I’m there to help in any way I can. It’s as simple as that.”

Rock Steady Boxing costs $25 per class, or $200 for a 10 class pass.

For more info, email [email protected] or visit

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