“She encourages us.”
“I yell at them.”
The instructor and her students at Title Boxing’s Rock Steady class are having a pleasant disagreement as to how to characterize the 1-2 days a week they spend in the gym.
They may not know that just a year and a half earlier, Roni Stiffler, their friendly yet tough instructor, was training to teach their course—a growing phenomenon specially designed for Parkinson’s patients—punching and perspiring in an Indianapolis gym, thinking of her grandfather.
“My grandfather had Parkinson’s and the thought of helping others fight the disease made me so excited. The first video I watched was in Indy on the first day of training. I literally cried my eyes out for the first two hours of the class,” she said.
It was in that gym, where Rock Steady was founded as the first Parkinson’s-specific boxing program by a former county prosecutor and a world champion professional boxer, that Stiffler found her new purpose. She’s now one of hundreds that have started their own clubs under Rock Steady’s unofficial mantra: the disease is the opponent.
And when you step into Stiffler’s class in Grandview, it’s easy to see that her troops have the disease on the ropes.
Once hands are wrapped and gloves strapped, Stiffler goes from sweet to intense in a matter of seconds. “High knees! High knees! I wanna see those knees up!” she says, smiling impishly in a tank top emblazoned with “This Is My Happy Hour.”
One of her students, a man in his mid-’50s, sticks his tongue out at her as he passes on a warm-up lap, matching her faux rigor. Playfulness not withstanding, it’s clear that Stiffler’s seriousness is present on purpose. She knows how hard it was for them to get out of bed, let alone get out the door and into the gym. She’s not going to let up for a second, knowing the benefits of what Rock Steady refers to as intense “forced” exercise.
“The best way I have heard Parkinson’s explained is it tries to ‘shrink’ you. Steps turn to shuffles, voice gets small, posture suffers, things like writing and brushing teeth become the hardest tasks of the day,” Stiffler said. “Everything about boxing is the opposite. The focus used on speed bag. The reach to hit the heavy bag. Moving when doing mitts. In class we also work on strides, motor skills, use loud voices while working out. The intensity of the workout helps, too.”
Etta Alleman admits that the instruction—Stiffler, along with trainer Andre Small—is part of what keeps her coming back. “On those days when you don’t feel like coming, you need somebody to push you, that puts the oomph in your bazoomph,” she said.
Alleman, who was diagnosed just over two years ago, has seen her general mobility improve, and her left side weakness has gotten stronger after months of coming to the class.
And often, it’s little things she wouldn’t have noticed before, like the ability to swing her arms freely even when not exercising. Plus, the footwork of boxing increases her ability to keep her keep up her tennis habit up.
She’s also quick to point out that the benefits of Rock Steady extend far beyond that day’s physical improvements. In addition to crediting the exercise with keeping her on a lower level of medication, she credits it the class with helping her ….
“Psychologically,” she says, nodding. “Parkinson’s can come with depression—I refuse to have that.”
Which is where the heavy bag comes in.
“I come and knock the heck out of it,” she laughs.
Some members of the class have larger issues with tremors than others, but the term “stiff” comes up more than shaky. Jenny Arrigo often times can barely walk when she arrives to class, but can stroll out freely on her own after it’s over. Like Etta, she values not only the exercise, but also the camaraderie of the class and the intensity they all instill in each other.
“I try to do some of this stuff on my own, but it’s not the same,” she said.
Such intensity is required for a disease so persistent in its attack.
All you can do is fight it, Stiffler says. Well, and laugh at it.
“We joke about the symptoms. One of my favorite guys walked in on a December day. Now understand, he has decent tremors in his right arm. He said, ‘Roni, I finally found a way to use my Parkinson’s for good.’ He held up his keys in his shaky paw. They were jingling and he said, ‘I can work for Volunteers of America. You know the people who ring the bell at Christmas time!’ He’s a funny guy; great right cross,” she smiled.
Stiffler leaves every week feeling fulfilled by their mission, hyper aware of what her students are fighting at home, and why she started showing up in the first place. Her grandfather, who recently passed, is never far from her heart and mind.
“He will always be the biggest and strongest man I have ever known, and watching what Parkinson’s did to him hurts my heart,” she said. “I couldn’t do a lot to help him. But if I can help other people fight these symptoms, I will. If we can slow some of the progression, that’s all I want to do. It’s the most important thing I do every week.” •
To join Rock Steady Central Ohio, call Title Boxing (955 W Fifth Ave.) at (614) 507-4252, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.