Three years ago, Joe Mehr started to "walk clumsy," he said.
The 68-year-old St. Cloud resident started developing tremors and having trouble balancing — telltale signs of Parkinson's disease, a nervous system disorder that has no cure.
With Parkinson's, symptoms gradually become more debilitating as the disease progresses.
"Tremors get worse and worse — unless you fight back," Mehr told the St. Cloud Times.
A downtown St. Cloud gym is helping Mehr fight back through Rock Steady Boxing, a program established in Indiana in 2006.
The program's founder learned that boxing drills — which focus on agility, hand-eye coordination, footwork and speed — can alleviate some symptoms of Parkinson's.
Since the program started, it's spread to more than 850 gyms worldwide. About a dozen gyms in Minnesota offer the program. Downtown Gym & Fitness was the first gym in the St. Cloud area to offer it — and Mehr was the gym's first Rock Steady Boxing participant.
Last summer, GraceMarie Tellone was certified as a Rock Steady Boxing instructor. She and Scott Kelm, owner of Downtown Gym & Fitness, lead the classes.
The gym is temporarily closed — and the boxing program temporarily suspended — until at least April 10, per an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz to help limit the spread of the new coronavirus.
Kelm said March 26 the program will continue once Walz authorizes gyms to reopen.
Building strength and confidence
While the program is designed for those with Parkinson's, any senior can join — and the training can be modified for those with canes, walkers or wheelchairs.
"Whatever the medical issue is, we can be sensitive to it, we can be attentive to it," Tellone said.
Before participants step onto the mats for the first time, they fill out a written assessment listing health issues, life experiences and goals. That way the program can be tailored to each individual.
Each class includes socialization and warmups, exercises, boxing training and a cool down.
Boxing training challenges the brain to create new neural connections, which counteracts the neurons that are gradually breaking down as the disease progresses.
"Not knowing what comes next keeps the brain firing," Kelm said.
The Indiana gym uses noncontact boxing drills — but Kelm encourages some gentle glove-to-glove contact.
In those drills, participants have to anticipate whether the instructor will raise their right or left glove — all the while pivoting around on the mats — which is good for building those connections in the brain.
The exercises also help with stability because the most steady position a person can be in while standing, Kelm said, is a boxer's stance.
Because the repetition of the steps builds muscle memory, a person who is about to fall is more likely to step and catch themselves if they've had boxing training, Kelm said.
"It becomes your norm, your new way of operating," he said.
The program also teaches participants how to get up off the floor if they've fallen.
"That's empowering," Kelm said.
In addition to the physical benefits, boxing training also builds confidence for those facing a devastating prognosis.
After his diagnosis, Mehr underwent physical therapy but boxing training has better improved his symptoms — and his attitude.
"This is a pretty happy hour, right here," he said. "It keeps me going all week."
Mehr attends one training session each week and completes exercises at home. Since he starting training, he's noticed improvement with his stiffness, imbalance and tremors, as well as his circulation and breathing.
Feeling confident in his health has grown more important for Mehr since his wife, Linda, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He said he has to be in good shape to take care of her — and even became a certified nursing assistant to care for her.
"That's my job now," he said.
And although Mehr admits he's tired after each class, he said the instructors keep him motivated.
"This is fun so I'm not quitting," Mehr said. "Boxing is not really about punching someone. It's about improving yourself.
"I'm not fighting Scott," he added. "I'm fighting Parkinson's."
"It's a really great atmosphere. Every level of ability is there, and no one judges anyone else," said St. Cloud resident Nita Papesh.
Papesh attends the class with her husband, Tim, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's last March. The couple's daughter, who works at a Nevada hospital specializing in neurology, suggested he look into boxing to mitigate his symptoms.
Because of his schedule, Papesh attends an evening class with local boxers.
"I was very intimidated. It was a lot of youngsters, a lot of ball-busting," he said of his first class.
But Papesh immediately felt comfortable with the coaches, who are positive and inject the sessions with humor.
"It might be intimidating to start with, but it's worth it. It's very rewarding," he said. "It's really good exercise. It's mind over matter."
'We're doing something new and brave'
Tellone said an often-overlooked side effect of Parkinson's is depression, which could be due to neurological changes or feelings of hopelessness as the disease gets worse.
She said it's important to talk about depression, fear and isolation.
"We all have something," Tellone said. "It's all about reinventing. We're doing something new and brave. We keep moving."
Getting on the mats and into boxing gloves was definitely new and brave for Mehr, who had never boxed before joining Rock Steady Boxing last fall.
"This is the most exercising I've ever done," he said with a laugh.