A self-described “gym rat all my life,” Harry Koth had never dabbled in the sport of boxing. Hadn’t worked the speed bag, hadn’t tweaked his footwork, hadn’t thrown an uppercut.

It wasn’t until a difficult diagnosis, then a revelation in a newsletter, along with the advocacy of actor Michael J. Fox, that Koth realized just how many people could be in his corner.

“Boxing is a different sport where you’re using your hands and your feet together,” Koth says. “Hard for Parkinson’s patients, but really good practice. Balance has improved, strength has improved – both positives. Just having the Parkinson’s community involved is a really good thing, too.”

About nine months ago, Koth, nearly eight years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, was introduced to Rock Steady Boxing – a 501 (C)(3) nonprofit organization that gives people with Parkinson’s disease hope by improving their quality of life through a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum.

Founded in 2006, Rock Steady is headquartered in Indianapolis, and in 2012 began adding affiliates across the globe. The current number of Rock Steady programs stands at 895 worldwide, including right here at the Fox Valley Park District, where our Copley Boxing & Training Center doubles as a Rock Steady affiliate for around 10-12 club members, a number that fluctuates a bit.

“It doesn’t always slow the progression down, but it leaves you with a functioning plateau, which is really good,” says Koth, the club’s newest member. “I’d recommend this program to anyone as soon as they find out they have Parkinson’s.”

That’s sweet music to Sara Roque, Rock Steady’s affiliate services director. One of the organization’s current initiatives, Roque says, is to work in concert with the Parkinson’s healthcare industry to not only create awareness for Rock Steady, but also to introduce its lasting benefits to newly diagnosed patients.

“There’s been research done to show that forced-intense exercise – where you’re pushing someone to where they wouldn’t push themselves – actually improves and in some cases reduces the symptoms of Parkinson’s,” Roque says. “Rock Steady is developed around exercises for those specific symptoms.”

The FVPD’s Rock Steady club meets three times per week – currently at the Prisco Center, while Copley Boxing is closed due to pandemic restrictions – and workouts consist of shadow boxing, hitting the heavy and speed bags, cognitive exercises, core work and more.

At the end of 2015, veteran CBS journalist Leslie Stahl featured Parkinson’s and shared the story of her husband, who participates in the Rock Steady program.

“After that, our training registrations just boomed, went through the roof … we had a waiting list of over two years,” Roque says. “Since then, a lot of the medical community started to get on board also, and especially now that more research is coming out.

“What has helped us as far as validation and being more recognized is that the medical community is starting to recommend (Rock Steady) to their patients, whether it’s a physical therapist, neurologist, or a movement-disorder specialist. It’s becoming more likely that when someone’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s, they’ll immediately get referred to Rock Steady.”

Dr. Gary Skaletsky, a retired neurosurgeon whose practice was based in Sugar Grove, co-coordinates the FVPD’s Rock Steady program with Uni Muniz. After his retirement two years ago, Skaletsky joined the Copley team and immersed himself once again into the lives of Parkinson’s patients, albeit in a different capacity than the operating room.

The designed workout regimen members partake in stresses repetition to enhance muscle memory and build endurance. A snapshot of each week:

Monday: Balance and boxing. The group completes exercises that focus on hand-eye coordination. Correct posture, teaching one how to fall properly and working on the speed and heavy bags strengthen endurance.

Wednesday: Weight-training rotation; upper and lower body strength training.

Friday: Functional training, which is a modification of teaching balance and coordination, Skaletsky says, “things to mobilize the legs, cardiovascular. We try to recruit areas of the brain to make sure everything up there is working together.”

As Skaletsky is quick to point out, Parkinson’s may impact those afflicted differently, so Skaletsky and Muniz run each new member through a series of scored tests, which measure balance. Members are re-tested every six months to document improvement.

“There is no way to predict who’s going to have a lot of tremors, who’s going to have difficulty with walking, who’s going to have a stooped posture, who’s going to have difficulty with speech – or any combination of those,” says Skaletsky, who practiced medicine for more than 30 years. “There’s also no way of predicting how rapidly the disease will progress.

“We’re not treating the disease. The goal of what we’re trying to do is physically get the most out of every person’s body, such that when and if the disease progresses, they’re better able to withstand that for as long as possible.”

For more information about the Fox Valley Rock Steady Program, visit facebook.com/rocksteady-jessethelaw or jessethelawboxing.com/rock-steady-boxing-fighting-parkinsLearn more about the Fox Valley Park Foundation at foxvalleyparkfoundation.org.