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Boxing for better health: Fitness class focuses on Parkinson's patients

BAXTER--At 70, grandmother and quilting enthusiast Joann Luukkonen never imagined herself in boxing gloves. Yet Thursday, Luukkonen found herself in Dion's Dangerzone Gym in Baxter with about a dozen others and 15 red heavy bags hanging from the ...

Mark Wheeler hits targets held by Big Stone Therapy physical therapy assistant Ronni Gilbert Thursday during a Rock Steady Boxing class at Dion’s Dangerzone Gym in Baxter. Rock Steady Boxing is an exercise program for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)
Mark Wheeler hits targets held by Big Stone Therapy physical therapy assistant Ronni Gilbert Thursday during a Rock Steady Boxing class at Dion’s Dangerzone Gym in Baxter. Rock Steady Boxing is an exercise program for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)

BAXTER-At 70, grandmother and quilting enthusiast Joann Luukkonen never imagined herself in boxing gloves.

Yet Thursday, Luukkonen found herself in Dion's Dangerzone Gym in Baxter with about a dozen others and 15 red heavy bags hanging from the ceiling from one side of the room to the other. This was no ordinary gym class, however, and Luukkonen is no ordinary student.

Designed for sufferers of the neurodegenerative brain disorder Parkinson's disease, Rock Steady Boxing is what Luukkonen hopes will allow her to walk again unassisted, and to once again use quilting skills that have earned her fair ribbons in the past. Twenty-nine years ago at age 41, Luukkonen was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease.

"If there's something out there that might help me, I'm willing to try," Luukkonen said. "It's been a rough journey."

Luukkonen learned of the class while attending a Parkinson's support group at Edgewood Vista in Baxter. It was there she met Lynda Erickson, the Baxter woman who along with her husband Michael Erickson brought the Rock Steady Boxing program to the Brainerd lakes area this summer. In June, the couple traveled to Indiana to become certified, returning to Baxter to establish the fourth affiliate program to exist in Minnesota.

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In addition to non-contact boxing, the class includes a host of activities-conditioning, dexterity exercises focused on fine motor skills and even a "obstacle course" of sorts, designed to help people learn how to fall in a way intended to reduce injury and how to get back off the ground.

"We try to get them down on the floor as much as possible, because they're going to end up there," Michael said.

"It's supposed to be hitting all the pieces of the puzzle," Lynda said.

Lynda herself was diagnosed in 2012 at age 54, and a conversation with her neurologist made clear the importance of exercise in slowing the onset of the disease.

"They said you can decide if you want to take medication, but you can't decide if you want to exercise," Lynda said.

Michael stumbled across the Rock Steady Boxing program while researching the disease online, Lynda said, and he was ready to commit to developing a program almost immediately. It took her a little longer to get on board.

"I didn't do any sports in high school and I'm going to box?" Lynda said. "I don't know, I didn't even want to say it out loud that I want to do it."

If there was ever a motivating factor, however, it's what Parkinson's can do without regular movement to keep it at bay. There's no cure for the disorder, which presents itself in a multitude of symptoms stemming from the brain's slow decrease in dopamine production. Four cornerstones of the disease are tremors, rigidity, slowness and negative impacts on balance.

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Before Lynda's and Luukkonen's diagnoses, both women thought they had carpal tunnel syndrome-a tingling or numbness in the hand caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist. Luukkonen was a business instructor at Central Lakes College teaching computer courses, so it wasn't a stretch she'd suffer from a condition encouraged by repeated use.

Both described another symptom noticed by others, however-each dragged one of their legs. Michael recognized the combination of symptoms as something more than just a pinched nerve in Lynda. Luukkonen's doctor diagnosed her with Parkinson's, but she wanted a second opinion. At 41 years old, she wasn't ready to face the possibility.

"I thought, 'I'm too young,'" Luukkonen said. "But I had to face it."

A neurologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester confirmed the diagnosis. At the time, in 1988, Luukkonen said her doctor assured her a cure for the disease was imminent. Nearly 30 years later, this promise has yet to be realized.

But that hasn't stopped Luukkonen from seeking ways to fend off the disease. In 2003, she received deep brain stimulation surgery, a procedure in which an electrode is inserted in the brain to disrupt electrical signals in an effort to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's. The impact this device has is most noticeable, she said, when she needs to get the batteries replaced. Without the stimulation, Luukkonen said her tremors become much more noticeable in a short time.

Although able to keep many of her symptoms in check, deep brain stimulation doesn't put an end to the disease. A couple years ago, Luukkonen had to give up quilting-fine motor skills are dramatically impacted by Parkinson's.

Lynda said it isn't just physical symptoms Parkinson's patients face. There's also hidden impacts, such as depression, anxiety and dementia. These symptoms are exacerbated by a lack of exercise and can be encouraged depending on how a doctor addresses the diagnosis with a Parkinson's sufferer. Lynda said she'd heard stories of people essentially told to give up.

"We hear many stories about people who are told, 'Go home and get your affairs in order,'" Lynda said. "We met a 35-year-old ex-Marine in Indiana who went home with that message, laid on the couch and a year later he couldn't walk."

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The Marine found Rock Steady Boxing, however, and things changed.

"Three years later with Rock Steady, he passed the Marine physical just to show he could," Lynda said.

Now, Lynda and Michael said they've witnessed similar transformations of Parkinson's patients in their own community. One man, Philip, couldn't stand up without a walker before Rock Steady Boxing.

"He's now getting up at his house with just a cane," Lynda said.

"He hasn't done that in three years," added Chris Bunnis, owner of Dion's Dangerzone Gym.

Chris and wife Jennifer Bunnis were enthusiastic about bringing the class to the gym, which offers boxing-focused and bootcamp-style classes in its space at 13495 Elder Drive.

"It's such a great feeling anytime you come in and work with them and to see the smiles on their face and the progress they've been making," Chris said. "They're like a family to us."

It's not entirely surprising Lynda would be drawn to a program meant to help people. A Crow Wing County social worker for 25 years, Lynda specialized in child protection before her retirement in February. Now, she's dedicating her time to making the Rock Steady Boxing program in Baxter as successful as possible. The program just received a $2,500 grant from Crow Wing Energized, which Lynda said they'll use to purchase equipment such as jump ropes, thicker mats, boxing speed bags and special gel inserts for boxing gloves intended to protect thin skin in older adults.

Although not yet covered by health insurance, Lynda said she's looking for a way to make that happen and is also seeking other grants to help cover the cost of participation. No one, regardless of resources, will be turned away, she said.

"I'm a social worker. ... I needed people," Lynda said. "And I found my niche. I need to keep giving back to the community. I know that if you work hard, you can slow the progress of the disease down. It's no doubt when you see so many people that that's happened to."

Resources on Parkinson's disease

• Rock Steady Boxing meets at 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at Dion's Dangerzone Gym, 13495 Elder Drive, Baxter. Call 218-850-0872 with questions.

• A Parkinson's disease support group meets at 1:30 p.m. the first Thursday of every month at Edgewood Vista, 14211 Firewood Drive, Baxter. The group has met for 12 years to share information, support and concerns. Caregivers are welcome. Contact Lynda Erickson with questions at 218-829-4017.

• BIG and LOUD therapy programs at Big Stone Therapy, 15620 Edgewood Drive N, Suite 240, Baxter, provide individual physical therapy and speech therapy. BIG consists of a high-intensity exercise program to teach patients to use their big movements and turn them into lifelong habits. LOUD consists of a high-intensity, individual voice program to carry over into everyday life. Call 218-454-7012 with questions.

• Speak Out and BIG programs at Essentia Health in Brainerd provide speech therapy and physical therapy. Speak Out is a speech therapy program that strengthens the muscles used for speaking and swallowing by teaching patients how to speak with intent. There are 12 individual sessions followed by the LOUD crowd, a group that provides ongoing vocal practice, accountability and support. The group meets weekly and is free. Call 218-828-7375 with questions.

How to support Rock Steady Boxing

• Lynda and Michael Erickson are seeking donations to support the Rock Steady Boxing program. Donations will be used to purchase new equipment and assist with coverage of class fees for participants, along with supporting growth of the program. Visit https://www.razoo.com/story/Rocksteady to make a donation.

• Another way to help is to volunteer for the classes. Michael Erickson said anyone is welcome to volunteer, although they must be physically fit enough to assist boxers with movements in the class. For more information, call 218-850-0872.

Michael Erickson leads warmups Thursday during a Rock Steady Boxing class at Dion’s Dangerzone Gym in Baxter. Erickson and wife Lynda Erickson (center), who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012, started the class. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)
Michael Erickson leads warmups Thursday during a Rock Steady Boxing class at Dion’s Dangerzone Gym in Baxter. Erickson and wife Lynda Erickson (center), who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012, started the class. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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