Fitness programs for everyone
Stuart Engle raises his fists, encased in bright red boxing gloves, and slugs a punching bag. Once, twice, a third time, then rocks back on his heels. His sweat-soaked T-shirt reads “Never underestimate an old man with boxing gloves.”
But here in this gym in Gaithersburg, Md., he and the 15 others present aren’t fighting each other. Rather, they say, they are fighting Parkinson’s disease.
Engle, 80, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s eight years ago and has been coming to Rock Steady Boxing classes for the last 18 months.
“It helps with balance. It helps with stamina,” he said. “And it helps to see others like me.”
Boxing to help quell the tremors and physical decline of Parkinson’s is just one of the innovative ways area gyms and rehab centers are working to help older adults with serious conditions get back on their feet.
In addition to boxing, there’s a center that offers dozens of classes a week for stroke patients, a gym that makes physical therapy fun through video games, and a rehab center with the latest flashy (literally) equipment.
Rock Steady Boxing
In dozens of cities across the U.S. and throughout the world, the nonprofit Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) teaches non-contact boxing skills to empower people with Parkinson’s. In the Washington area there are four locations, each run separately by trained instructors.
During 90-minute classes, which participants (called “fighters”) may attend twice a week, they warm up by working out for five minutes at each of several stations — such as punching bags and shadow boxing. Two instructors work with participants, calling out encouragement and blaring energizing music.
Karen Clegg, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago. When she first attempted to shoot a basket at the gym adjacent to RSB, despite being tall she lacked the upper body strength to get the ball far into the air. Today when she shoots hoops before boxing, she can make baskets.
“I feel stronger and more confident,” she said. “Psychologically, there’s lots of camaraderie and support” here.
Mike Dwyer, 53, of Laytonsville, Md., was diagnosed last August and started boxing at Rock Steady that month.
“What I find most inspirational is the people who have had Parkinson’s disease for years and have to fight to get here, yet show up week after week,” Dwyer said.
Angel McNamara, a former boxer herself, had been teaching boxing at a senior center in Arlington, Va., when a participant with Parkinson’s asked for specific classes to help with symptoms of the disease.
“She literally punched me in the gut to get me to say yes,” McNamara recalled laughing. Soon, McNamara decided to open Rock Steady Boxing of Montgomery County, Md.
Area RSB locations:
- Gaithersburg, Md., (240) 838-8221, http://montgomery.rsbaffiliate.com
- Rockville, Md., (301) 717-5929, http://rockville.rsbaffiliate.com
- Fairfax, Va., (301) 996-8779, http://dmv.rsbaffiliate.com
- McLean, Va., (571) 730-8553, http://Nova.rsbaffiliate.com
Stroke Comeback Center
Darlene Williamson, a speech-language pathologist, had worked one-on-one with people who had suffered a stroke, helping them to relearn how to articulate their thoughts into speech, and retrain their mouths to shape words distinctly.
But working in the confines of managed care, she felt patients weren’t getting covered for the full spectrum of help they needed. To find a cost-effective way to help stroke patients with a variety of problems, Williamson decided to try offering group speech therapy.
In 2005, she opened the Stroke Comeback Center in Vienna, Va. Her business plan was “a wing and a prayer,” she joked. The center accepts no health insurance or Medicare, and instead relies on donations and modest payments from those who take classes there.
“Working outside third party reimbursement allowed us to focus on very individual needs that would not necessarily be reimbursed” by insurance, she said.
The center’s menu of classes — which include cognitive strategies, presentation skills, book groups, technology, math, yoga, exercise and more — proved so successful that in April Williamson opened a second Stroke Comeback Center in Rockville, Md.
“We believe very strongly it’s about living successfully despite disability. We make no promise we will ‘fix’ you. The issue is, how do you define ‘successfully’? Can we find a way to go around or jump over a hurdle to find what’s important to you in life — whether it’s Skyping with grandchildren, ordering at Starbucks, or going back to work?” Williamson said.
For Robert Swain of Alexandria, Va., classes at the center have meant he’s able to play music again and return to work as an attorney at the Department of Labor. Now 70, Swain suffered a stroke in 2014. He found the Stroke Comeback Center online after looking for low-cost therapy because insurance only covered it for six weeks.
As Swain regained more control over his speech, he was able to sing again with his bluegrass band, King Street Bluegrass. And while he’s not able to play the banjo again yet, he is slowly relearning the guitar and playing drums in another band.
Kathryn Phippen, also of Alexandria, found the center after her stroke and a number of complications that kept her in rehab centers for months. She has taken part in groups discussing current events and books, as well as a public speaking class.
She also participates in the center’s podcast, entitled “Slow Road to Better.” That’s “where we tell stories about the different types of struggles that we have gone through as stroke and aphasia survivors, and how it is for us to keep on living.” The podcast has listeners from around the world.
The full fee is $260 per nine-week class, but about one-third of the participants qualify for a partial scholarship based on income. The minimum fee is $30.
Vienna, (703) 255-5221
Rockville, (301) 605-7620
Fitness for Health
Marc Sickel started looking for innovative therapies for children more than 30 years ago. Today, his Rockville Fitness for Health center serves a variety of ages, including older adults who face a variety of health challenges, as well as those who just want to maintain their balance and remain flexible enough for everyday activities.
“As we age, going into an exercise facility can be very daunting. And, frankly, exercising is also very boring,” Sickel said. So, Fitness for Health combines video games and exercise for an experience it calls “exergaming,” both to make exercise more fun and to work on cognitive as well as physical skills.
For example, in one activity a person races back and force in an enclosed area to hit and kick lights as they light up on posts and the floor. In another, you throw balls at lights as they blink on a board. Another activity involves walking along a trampoline to work on balance.
Sickel said one client told him, “This doesn’t look like a fitness gym. It looks like Disney World for adults.”
Lola Byron, 74, has mild cerebral palsy and walks with a cane. The Bethesda resident was referred here by her doctors at the nearby National Institutes of Health.
After working out at the center, Byron said she is now able to walk up a flight of stairs without clutching the railing for the first time in her life.
“I came there to see it, and they showed me these things and I thought to myself, ‘This is absurd.’ I’m a skeptic by nature. But my goodness, it’s amazing! You don’t realize you’re doing exercise. Your focus is just different,” said Byron.
Shelly London is also a convert. He suffered what may be a series of mini-strokes, but doctors still haven’t found a clear diagnosis for his declining cognitive and walking abilities.
A few weeks ago, he needed a wheelchair to get from the car to his doctor’s office. But after working out at Fitness for Health for just a short time, “It’s like I went to Lourdes. I threw away my cane. My wife was so astounded,” enthused London, who is 80 and lives in Bethesda.
Some health plans may cover visits to Fitness for Health, but many who use it are private pay, Sickel said. Hourly fees for one-on-one training are $125 to $130, but seniors pay a discounted $90 per hour.
http://fitnessforhealth.org, (301) 231-7138
Ability Fitness Center
Those with spinal cord injuries, autism, multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions can be daunted by traditional gyms or not be able to safely use the equipment. Ability Fitness Center opened earlier this year in Leesburg, Va., to address that problem.
Therapists are specially trained to help people with neurological conditions. Specialized equipment uses electrical stimulation to help with muscle contractions.
Other equipment might hold a limb in alignment if it is paralyzed or can’t move properly. Harnesses can help people who are usually confined to wheelchairs stand and exercise.
One client with a brain injury had no one to celebrate his birthday with, so he came to the center to celebrate with friends he made there.
“This is such an inclusive place. It’s OK if you can’t swallow well, or if you can’t communicate and can just give a thumbs up,” said Helen Parker, a physical therapist who is the center’s clinical director.
“When someone has a spinal cord injury, stroke or other neurological diagnosis, they make much slower progress than your typical physical therapy patient. As a result, insurance coverage at most healthcare facilities rarely lasts long enough for people to reach their true functional potential,” Parker said.
Ability Fitness Center doesn’t take insurance or Medicare, but Parker is hopeful insurance companies will someday “realize if a person can get out of a chair and exercise, bones [won’t be] as brittle, they won’t get pressure sores. They will ultimately be healthier, and that will save money.”
Monthly fees are $500 for unlimited fitness center time with physical therapists. Need-based scholarships are available.
Brooke Grove Rehabilitation Center
With its soaring ceilings, restaurant-style dining and wooded setting, Brooke Grove’s new rehabilitation center looks less like a healthcare facility and more like a resort. The rehab center, opened in 2016, is the latest addition to Brooke Grove’s campus in Olney, Md., which also houses independent and assisted living homes and memory care facilities.
The rehab center features state-of-the-art “neurogym” equipment that allows patients to work with therapists in a safe environment while recovering from surgery, falls and other conditions.
The bungee mobility trainer, for example, targets the muscles required to perform weight-bearing activities such as standing up from a chair, getting out of bed and walking.
Other equipment improves reaction times, balance and concentration. The Dynavision D2 flashes lights that patients move toward, and can be used by those recovering from strokes and in wheelchairs.
With the Korebalance machine, patients stand on an inflatable disc that changes angle and direction in sync with video images. Users must shift their balance in response, forcing them to respond as if they stumble on uneven pavement or have to dodge a bike on the sidewalk.
A virtual reality recumbent bike with lumbar support allows patients to steer and navigate terrain on 40 different virtual courses shown on a screen.
Patricia McShea has been at the center since she broke her back two weeks ago, choosing it in part because of its five-star rating by Medicare.
“My friend, who toured [facilities] for me while I was in the hospital, said it’s the nicest looking place she’d seen,” McShea said. “The therapists here are dedicated and caring, and feel like friends. They help push me to meet my goals.”
http://www.bgf.org/brooke-grove/living-options/rehabilitation, (301) 260-2320.