Sweating freely from punching the heavy and speed bags, then running through the obstacle course at Unbound Synergy fitness center in New Hope, Bucks County, Ed McGuire, a retired Philadelphia police detective who has lived with Parkinson’s disease for eight years, shouted, “Where’s my woman?”
Joanne Haug, one of McGuire’s two Rock Steady Boxing coaches, watched him make his way toward her, laughed, and pointed to Karen, McGuire’s wife of 43 years, who was laughing, too.
“I think that’s your woman sitting over there,” Haug said. McGuire, 68, widened his eyes in amazement. “I can’t have two?” he asked.
Then Haug asked McGuire, who lives in Warrington, the key question she asked each of her 10 Parkinson’s clients at a recent workout before demanding a minute of nonstop punching. “You breathing OK?”
When McGuire nodded, they faced each other at close range, raised their boxing gloves, and got to work fighting the degenerative neurological effects of Parkinson’s disease through furiously intense exercise.
While the sound system played “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and other uptempo oldies, Haug shouted the punch combinations, “2-3-2! 1-1-2! 1-2-3-4!” and McGuire delivered his jabs and hooks into her gloves.
After a minute of unrelenting punches, McGuire was sweating profusely and breathing hard but still had enough wisecrack energy to look at the next boxer, James Brown, who was wearing his favorite eye-popping orange sneakers, and say: “Look at him. He lights up the world.”
Brown, 70, from Jamison, laughed and said: “Orange is my color. I played hockey as a kid and when the Flyers came along, that was it. Orange!”
Brown said he was used to enduring kidding from McGuire, who calls him Jimbo and is a friend. “With a name like James Brown?” he asked rhetorically. “We kid each other. My ringtone is ‘I Feel Good.’ ”
Getting serious, Brown said: “I was diagnosed a year and a half ago. At first, I was really depressed. I said, ‘Why me?’ ” Then he started fighting back: stationary cycling workouts, golf, tai chi, and twice-a-week sessions at Rock Steady Boxing.
“There’s great camaraderie here,” Brown said. “Everybody has Parkinson’s. Everybody is in good spirits.”
McGuire agreed. “Before I was diagnosed eight years ago, I played on three softball teams and I played tennis,” he said. “I was hesitant about doing this at first, but after doing it, I know it’s the only way to go. I’m here three times a week, and I go home and I’m drenched. Parkinson’s is up and down. You’ve got to battle it.”
Anne Haneman, who has co-coached the group’s 24 boxers with Haug since the two physical therapists started the program in April, said: “The camaraderie between the boxers, the way they help each other out, makes this a tight-knit support group. They push each other. They’re happy when something good happens for somebody and concerned if something isn’t going so well. They’ve got each other’s back.”
Years ago, Haneman said, the old-school theory about treating people with Parkinson’s disease was just to do stretching. Now, she said, medical research has shown that intense physical exercise “will really slow down the disease.”
In September, the Parkinson’s-fighting power of Rock Steady Boxing crossed the Delaware River into Cherry Hill, where Stacey Macaluso and co-coach Melanie Montana run four weekly sessions at the Katz Jewish Community Center for 40 people living with the disease.
Macaluso, who also leads dance classes there, said: “A lot my boxers have been dancers and a lot of my dancers are becoming boxers. In dance class, people have a little more freedom to hold back and push themselves less hard than I give them in Rock Steady Boxing.”
Kevin Murray, 59, who has been living with Parkinson’s for 18 years, and his wife, Susan, who live in Berlin, N.J., feel so strongly about the program that they paid for Macaluso and Montana to earn instructor certification at the nonprofit Rock Steady Boxing’s Indianapolis headquarters for its 457 programs worldwide, where 22,850 people living with Parkinson’s train.
“Sometimes with Parkinson’s disease, you become isolated, and isolation leads to giving up, and then the disease progresses faster,” Murray said. “When I’m doing the boxing workout, I don’t feel like I have Parkinson’s. I just feel like I’m working out. That way, you can ignore the future and fight the disease.”
The more she talked about her Rock Steady boxers, the more emotional Macaluso became. “The thing about Parkinson’s is, if you don’t fight it, it’s going to get you,” she said.
“These people are so strong, I’ve never seen anything like it. I love them. I worry about them. I care about every single one of them, so I fight this fight with them. I feel so blessed.”
Macaluso said she worries about the people with Parkinson’s disease who are not fighting back. “I know there are tons of people huddled in their homes, afraid to reach out,” she said. “I want them to know we are here. This is a family. You have to fight back. We can help.”
For more information on Rock Steady Boxing programs: www.rocksteadyboxing.org.