The Health Benefits of Boxing for People With Parkinson's Disease

How a South Shore physical therapist and boxing coach is using Rock Steady Boxing to improve the lives of people with Parkinson's. 

As the daughter of an amazing Mom living with Parkinson's disease, I've heard about the incredible health benefits people are finding through Rock Steady boxing. Brett Miller, who runs Rock Steady South Shore at The Workout Club in in Marshfield, MA, was kind enough to share his journey of launching his own Rock Steady program, and witnessing firsthand the ways that it's improving the lives of his boxers. If you're interested in signing up, please visit their website, drop them an email, or call the center at 508-922-5647.

Diana: What is Rock Steady?

Brett: Rock Steady Boxing is a first of-its-kind, non-contact boxing-inspired fitness curriculum designed to dramatically improve the ability of people suffering with Parkinson's disease. It was founded in 2006 by former Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 40. He experienced a rapid progression of symptoms including tremors, rigidity, and a loss of some functions. A friend taught him how to box, and he quickly saw his symptoms decrease. After only a few weeks, he stretched out his arms and said, "Look, I'm Rock Steady."

Rock Steady Boxing helps people to maintain their physical independence, improve their quality of life, and restores confidence and dignity while we wait for a cure. Our mission is to empower people with Parkinson's to "fight back" and to serve those affected with HELP: Hope, Exercise, Learning, and Pain Relief. We want our boxers to feel in control of their future again. The medical studies have proven that anyone, at any level of Parkinson's, can actually lessen their symptoms and lead to a happier, healthier life.

How did you get involved with the Rock Steady Program?

I got involved in Rock Steady Boxing after a few people, who knew I was a physical therapist and involved in professional boxing as a conditioning coach, had seen a clip on 60 Minutes about the program. After watching it, I knew it was the perfect combination of my careers and something that was calling me to get involved. I was in need of some new jazz in my life and this was serendipitous in its timing. I knew I could give these people hope, if nothing else.

What is a typical class like?

A typical class for Rock Steady boxers is an hour and a half. It consists of a warm up, multiple rounds of high intensity intervals, and a cool down. Rock Steady breaks down their classes in 4 levels. Each boxer goes through an assessment on their first day. Level 1 is the highest functioning, based on the initial assessment.  Classes are typically modified based on the level. Classes are different every week and I tend to pick themes corresponding to balance, endurance, footwork, and punching drills, for example. Boxing equipment such as medicine balls, heavy bags, speed bags, mitt work, and double end bags are all incorporated on some level in every class.

We are always very social and funny in class, making camaraderie and fellowship our focus. All of the Rock Steady coaches in the world have a training forum in which we share ideas about our class creativity and success stories. All of the classes worldwide follow the boxing conditioning skills for optimal agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand eye coordination, footwork, and overall endurance. Amazing things come out of our classes in all aspects of these people's lives and their family member's lives as well. It's something that can't be touched, but only experienced if present in a class.

What is the certification process like to run a Rock Steady program?

To be an affiliate of the Rock Steady program, there is a certification course in which you travel to the Indianapolis training facility for three days, and learn the method and are tested. It is two long days of training in the classroom and training facility with interaction during classes being held. The last day is full engagement in a class with hands on the actual boxers. Rock Steady Training Facility has a huge client base and all levels of PD are experienced from younger, fit, employed professionals to wheelchair bound folks who can barely speak. After graduation, Rock Steady sends you on your way home with everything you need to start your own program. There is an annual fee to affiliate, but very worth the cost, because we have a constant support from Indianapolis as well as a CMS (Content Management System) that includes video as well as printed documentation for anything you would need for starting the program to class ideas.

How do you handle clients who have more than one health issue? For example, Parkinson's disease and a hip replacement?

When someone comes to Rock Steady South Shore for the first time, there is a series of tests we do to establish the correct level class for that boxer. There is also a medical history form, a physician release form, and a psycho-social questionnare called the PDQ-39. This gives me a whole lot of information about the evolution of their PD process, as well as any other cardiac, orthopedic, or other health issues to be concerned about. I feel like we have an edge with our class modification and development because I have been a physical therapist for 22 years and have a lot of experience with this population, as well as the medical equipment side of the fence.

We currently have a gentleman who has a really difficult time putting on his glove on one side due to a contracture of his fingers. I have made a brace for his hand to be worn at night and modified a boxing glove that can accommodate the issues, so he can transition into his gloves with the other boxers in a timely manner.  We do whatever it takes to make the program seamless for all our boxers regardless of past medical history, and we have the skills to do that effectively.

When you started the Rock Steady program, how many people were enrolled? How many are enrolled now? Did you think it would be this popular?

When we started our program four weeks ago, we had two participants. We have added about two or three new people every week, and there are multiple people coming in the next week to get started. Currently, we have 12 boxers who are already making amazing strides in all aspects of their lives. We expect to have about 40 participants by the winter season.

Are there any particular stories or clients that stand out to you?

Every person in our program has been a success story since day one. Even myself and the cornermen have been blown away by the results of Rock Steady South Shore. I receive daily notes and emails from family members who don't even know me, to thank me for my compassion and work with their boxers. I have daughters who have said they haven't seen their dad smile like this in two years. I have neurologists blown away by the balance and posture improvements of their patients after two weeks of boxing. I have boxers jumping rope, bouncing on trampolines and throwing heavy bag punches like Ali. The list goes on and on, and I couldn't be more humbled to have had the grace of God put me in these shoes to fight back like this.

Will you be attending the World Parkinson Congress in Portland this November 2016?

I will not be attending the World Parkinson Congress this month for the simple reason that now I am engaged with these incredible, hard-working, never-quitting, stand-up boxers -- I can't leave them for a week. I feel like Superman and it's now my duty and my turn to be extra accountable to give them what they give me on a weekly basis. There will be a large contingent of Rock Steady coaches in Portland who I have no doubt will represent us very well.

How can people learn more about your program, and how do they sign up?

We have a website, and people can email us at: I can be reached personally at 508-922-5647 or the club at 781-834-1150

Please feel free to come by our location to watch a class, learn about volunteer opportunities, or join our wonderful group of boxers. We are a full fitness center with weights, nautilus machines, yoga, aerobics classes, and a great group of energetic members who strongly support our Rock Steady mission. We have multiple packages based on what you are looking to achieve. We also offer a beginners package to include your gloves, wraps, assessment, and a full gym membership. Family members can join the fitness center as well, so they can follow their own fitness journey while their loved ones fight back.

We have great news: early next year, we are expanding into the space next door. We will be adding a full boxing ring, more boxing equipment, and more space allocated to our program as we expect to have a lot of people with Parkinson's disease fighting back -- they know that in this corner of Rock Steady South Shore, there is HOPE.

Thank you so much to Brett Miller for taking the time to answer our questions about his Rock Steady program in Marshfield, MA. Stay tuned to Photo Shoot for a Cure and like our Facebook page for more interviews with incredible people like Brett, who are involved in life-changing ways with the Parkinson's community.

Photo Shoot for a cure is a series of photo shoots benefiting The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Produced by photographer Diana Levine, in support of her Mom, who has been living with Parkinson's disease for over 10 years, 100% of shoot fees go directly to Parkinson's research.

The first Photo Shoot for a Cure is taking place October 1, 2016 in Wakefield, MA. The second Photo Shoot for a Cure will take place November 2016 in the South Shore, MA

If you can't make the shoot, but would like to support our team, please visit our Team Fox page to make a donation. Every dollar matters on our mission to fund a cure for Parkinson's.