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Oct 23

St. Paul boxing class helps in the fight against Parkinsons – Press

Its Tuesday morning at the Element Gym in St. Pauls Hamline-Midway neighborhood, regulars trickle in for the 10 a.m. boxing class. Men and women are ready to duke it out for an hour and get in their early-morning workout. But this gym crowd is a little different from what you might expect, they are all over 60 years old and have Parkinsons disease.

The boxing class, Rock Steady Boxing, is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit gym started in 2006 to help those with Parkinsons and is one of the programs, as well as Element Gym, that make up CoMotion Center for Movement. CoMotion is focused on providing fitness programs for underserved, low-income neighborhoods in St. Paul.

But despite CoMotion and Rock Steadys innovative programming, Kim Heikkila, a co-director and coach at Rock Steady Boxing St. Paul, says people with Parkinsons are still underserved; particularly those of color.

Building a Parkinsons workout program that targets communities of color has been as challenging as it is important, Heikkila said.

Boxing classes for those with Parkinsons arent much different from regular boxing classes. Katie Grove, another coach and co-director at Rock Steady Boxing and retired athletic trainer, says their boxing classes target balance and strength, both important for those with Parkinsons. Grove and other coaches work in unique ways to stimulate the mind as well as the body.

Jim Benson, a class member of Rock Steady Boxing, admits he doesnt really understand how boxing helps his Parkinsons. But the 85-year-old, known by those at CoMotion as the Walloping Swede, believes the positive reinforcement of the Rock Steady staff does everybody good.

Heikkila shouts 1, 2, 2, 3, and then switches to words during her warm-up step left, hook right. This is a subtle way, Grove explains, to train the brain as well as the body. When class members arent throwing punches, sometimes they will practice buttoning shirts to work on fine motor skills.

The stigma of Parkinsons is a setback for treatment. Parkinsons is a nervous system disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness and difficulty with walking and balance, according to Heikkila said some employers of Rock Steady members dont even know their workers have Parkinsons.

When researching new BIPOC Parkinsons programming for a Parkinsons foundation grant, Heikkila said she discovered not only are communities of color underserved, they are underreporting their symptoms.

Some of this, Heikkila clarified, has to do with cultural differences. In Asian cultures, she says for example, the symptoms of Parkinsons shaking and lack of balance are seen as side effects of aging, not a serious underlying condition.

In addition to the stigma of Parkinsons, there are cultural differences that need to be addressed when working with non-white communities. This means extra care has to be taken to make programs welcoming and appealing, said Heikkila.

This has led to a creative, grassroots approach to finding guidance for the program, said Lori Gleason, executive director of St. Paul Ballet and another coach in the growing Parkinsons programming at CoMotion.

In addition to Gleasons ballet classes, Robyn Mathews-Lingens martial arts program, Dragon Crane, is being adapted to serve guests with Parkinsons. Smiling Drum Studio is also being altered for the program. All of the programs share space inside CoMotions sprawling former warehouse interior.

The grassroots approach Gleason spoke about has involved unconventional research into reaching communities of color, including going out into the community.

Its not anything magical, just getting out there and meeting people, Gleason said. Going to Black churches and talking to pastors has been one of the ways CoMotion has not only built up a community connection but gained insight on how to make classes appealing for non-white communities, she added.

Heikkila says the program has also been reaching out to colleges for BIPOC medical students who want to help.

Heikkila hopes this outreach will help build a program that recognizes the efforts and talents brought in by other cultures. Ultimately, building a community is an important part of creating new engaging programming.

I know I want to feel like part of a community Gleason said about the role community plays in fitness programs. When youre working out, Gleason added, youre showing all the parts of yourself others dont usually see.

I love the exercise and the support, said Rock Steady Boxing class member Benson.

That in-person support is increasingly difficult to find with COVID restrictions. Like many small businesses, CoMotion was hit hard by pandemic shutdowns. After starting a fundraiser and pivoting quickly to Zoom lessons at the start of shutdowns, CoMotion and Rock Steady Boxing are slowly returning to normal. On a recent Tuesday, Heikkila balanced a small class of about 10 and a Zoom class in tandem.

While the BIPOC Parkinsons program is still in the outreach stage, CoMotion will be holding a free community Zoom call to discuss race, ethnicity, and Parkinsons on Oct. 27. By 2021 the project, funded by a community grant from the Parkinsons Foundation, hopes to launch a free class sampler program and evolve into a sustainable program that serves BIPOC people with Parkinsons, according to Heikkila. For more information, email or go to

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St. Paul boxing class helps in the fight against Parkinsons - Press

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