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Boxers work to knock out Parkinson's symptoms

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

When Mary Yeaman was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2006, she could barely bring herself to leave her house. Her muscles were weak, and she was having a hard time coping.

''I've always done sports and stuff like that, and it was getting to be too much just sitting and doing nothing,'' she said.

In 2007, she found Rock Steady Boxing in Indianapolis. She now attends classes every week and has seen her symptoms ease as a result of a rigorous regimen of punching, jumping, jogging and stretching.

''It makes my muscles stronger. I can walk better,'' said Yeaman, 64.

Rock Steady, founded in 2006 by former Marion County prosecutor Scott C. Newman after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 40, gives people suffering from the disease an outlet to ease their symptoms and improve their physical fitness. Through boxing-inspired fitness classes, participants use exercise to slow the symptoms of a progressive neurological disease that causes tremors, muscle rigidity, loss of balance and cognitive, speech and vision impairment.

''Sometimes people get very discouraged when they are diagnosed with Parkinson's, understandably facing a disease that is progressive, that's going to worsen over time and that can take a big toll on them,'' said neurologist and Rock Steady board member Dr. S. Elizabeth Zauber.

''When they come to a gym and realize that ... there are people that are experiencing the same thing (and) there is something they can do about it to get better and perhaps slow down the course of their disease, then that improves their overall outlook. They realize they're still very capable physically even though they have a neurological disease.''

Rock Steady offers 16 classes a week. The organization's 125 clients range in age from late 30s to early 90s.

Classes in the gym adorned with photos of boxer Muhammad Ali, who also suffers from Parkinson's, start slow with a warm-up before participants dive into more rigorous exercise. Coaches set up several stations throughout the small gym with a different exercise at each one. Participants punch hanging boxing bags and speed balls, jump rope and toss medicine balls.

The exercises at Rock Steady are based on boxing drills, and they're meant to extend the perceived capabilities of those suffering from Parkinson's. There are four different class levels, based on the severity of the symptoms.

Boxing works well to combat the disease because of the range of motion required in the exercises, Zauber said.

''I see all the time in my patients that start exercising or my patients that are exercising that they tend to function better,'' she said. ''They have improvements in their balance, improvements in sleep, in mood and energy level.''

The organization offers more than just physical improvement.

''It's a support system,'' said Joyce Johnson, executive director of the organization. ''It's being able to come here where people understand the symptoms and challenges of the disease.''

Yeaman said Rock Steady is the ''best thing that's ever happened'' to her and called her classmates her ''second family.''

''These people are always there for you no matter what happens,'' she said.

Classes are led by program directors Kristy Rose Follmar and Christine Timberlake. Follmar is a former professional boxer, and Timberlake is a certified personal trainer whose husband was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2000.

Timberlake said she couldn't get her husband, Tom, ''to do anything'' before he starting coming to Rock Steady. About a month after he started attending classes, she said she saw a change in body, mind and attitude.

''He's completely transformed,'' she said. ''He's making the most out of life.''

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Associated Press photographer Mike Conroy contributed to this story.

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