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Boxing class helps stroke, Parkinson’s patients fight back

Improving flexibility and mobility with non-contact boxing

Scott Everhart speaks about his non-contact boxing class Tuesday, March 7, 2017 at Victory Sports and Fitness.
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Scott Everhart speaks about his non-contact boxing class Tuesday, March 7, 2017 at Victory Sports and Fitness.

The old one-two, followed by a left hook, lands in a series of thwacks. The trainer calls out the pattern in Tuesday’s class, set in the sweeping gym of Victory Sports and Fitness in Hills Plaza. “One, two, three, bada-bing, bada-boom,” he yells. The leather strains with each punch.

For Mike Berwager, the sound brings back memories.

“Being an old boxer, you have to think about this guy hating you back,” he said, eyes focused on the pair of mitts.

But that was a lifetime ago, he said, before he owned his dental laboratory making teeth, before he went out hunting with his dogs in his spare time.

Before the stroke that took each away.

“It changes your life completely,” Berwager, 69, said. “I call it pride. You can let it go and you could stay in the wheelchair all your life; I’m not that type of person.”

Tuesday’s class has been a way back for him and others, some who have also suffered the effects of aging bodies and attacks on the mind. Scott Everhart, the program’s director and a trainer at Victory, developed the non-contact boxing class specifically for patients of Parkinson’s disease, which about 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with each year, according to the CDC.

Boxing, with its rapid combinations and mix of hand-eye coordination and footwork, helps re-discipline a body that has lost touch with the mind’s eye. The classes have gained popularity across the country as an active way to fight the neurodegenerative disease’s effects.

“The great thing about boxing is it combines a little bit of everything,” Everhart said. “You have to constantly move and adjust to a stimulus.”

But Victory’s class, which began in January, is open to anyone. Everhart said the benefits don’t discriminate among the healthy and the afflicted, helping improve mobility in recovering stroke patients, such as Berwager, or anyone dealing with the stiffness of older age.

And like Berwager, he can see their progress.

“For some people, just being able to step the right way is huge,” he said. “Or putting a little bit of pop in that right hook or right cross. When they hear that crack of the mitt, that makes it worth it.”

Bob Rightmyer, 82, is new to boxing. But he thinks about each punch, not because he’s a rookie, but because he has to. As a Parkinson’s patient for the past seven years, progress is literally one step — and one punch — at a time.

“The one, two, three,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow. “That’s what helps me.”

On Tuesday, he propped his walking cane on the bar where the class participants begin their stretching exercises, the warm-up for the morning. Then the real work begins. A timer beeps and a round of shadowboxing follows. Another beep and it’s time for speed bag work and a pas de deux with the trainer.

Rightmyer performs his rounds from a bench. He has a pair of artificial knees, artificial hips, a rebuilt back. Standing is a challenge. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s after falling on the sidewalk. He first noticed its effects while riding a ski lift. When it reached the top, he couldn’t get off.

But the fight never left him. He delivers a combination in rhythm, beating the trainer’s paws like a blanket.

“I’ve been looking for a new brain,” he said, laughing. “But I haven’t found one lately.”

Rightmyer said the classes help with his focus, thinking through progressions and relearning movements that were once routine.

“I don’t wake up ‘one, two, three’ but I’m concentrating,” he said. “It’s good, it’s getting better and these fellows work carefully with me.”

For Berwager, the path back began in a wheelchair. “With my right side, I constantly have to think about moving this foot to walk,” he said, “or moving this hand to throw a punch.

“To most people, it’s a natural thing.”

Now he’s walking again. Boxing again. The old fighter steps up and leans into each punch, balling his fists as the gloves make contact. The bag starts to swing like a pendulum. He beats it back, each blow landing with a thud.

“You never get it all back,” he said. “You just keep trying.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy

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