WILLMAR, Minn. – Brett Larson started having tremors 2½ years ago.
He first noticed them while working at his office at RJ Tours in Willmar, where he is the operations manager.
A neurologist delivered the diagnosis.
Larson had Parkinson’s – a chronic, progressive neurodegenerative disorder with symptoms including shaking, rigid muscles, slow movement, difficulty balancing and diminished vocal capacity that can make it difficult for the 1 million Americans that have the disease to carry out daily life functions.
He was 51 years old.
Larson’s symptoms progressed, and by December of 2018 he had given up his commercial driver’s license and was using a walking stick when doing chores outside because he would sometimes “stumble and fall on the ground.”
This past January Larson balled up his fists and started punching back at the disease that had taken so much away from him.
Now Larson wants others with Parkinson’s to do the same at a Rock Steady Boxing program that begins this week at the Bar Path CrossFit gym in Willmar.
After he was diagnosed, Larson battled denial and depression as he attended support groups and physical therapy where he worked on maintaining the strength of his muscles and speaking voice.
There are a variety of exercise, therapy and support programs designed specifically for people with Parkinson's offered at Willmar area health care facilities, including Rice Rehab Center and Bethesda's Wellness Center, which has its own boxing program offered one day a week on Monday mornings.
Larson said it's important for people of all ages with Parkinson's to take action to keep the symptoms of the disease from taking over.
“It’s tough when something is taken away from you and you think you can still do the things you used to do but you can’t do anymore,” he said.
Then, while talking to a high school classmate who also has Parkinson’s, Larson learned about a new exercise program designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s called Rock Steady Boxing that was being offered at a gym in Monticello.
Larson started going in January, making the three-hour round trip for the 90-minute workout that uses boxing steps and jabs. The punches are thrown at water noodles and soft mitts held by coaches — no body contact is made.
“I have made drastic improvements,” he said. “When I first started the program I couldn’t balance on my one leg, the side that’s affected, for more than five seconds. Now I can balance on it for a minute and a half.”
And that walking stick he used outside to prevent falls?
“Now I’m able to walk around and mow and do all those good things that I’d kind of lost,” he said. “The progression that I’ve made by doing Rock Steady Boxing has just made wonderful improvements in my life.”
Larson said he had initial misgivings about going to Rock Steady Boxing. “I’m not a boxer,” he said. And he didn’t want to become a boxer.
But the program isn’t about becoming a boxer, but using boxing routines to strengthen muscles, balance, voice and overall emotional well-being.
“It’s a good workout. It’s a core workout. It’s boxing. It’s movement. It’s stretching,” Larson said. “It’s a little bit of yoga. It’s a little bit of cardio. It’s a little bit of boxing.”
What makes it even better, he said, is that the class is made up only of people with Parkinson’s.
“The one thing that’s nice about it is you’re in a fitness gym with people with the same disease and the same problems you have,” he said.
“When you’re in a Rock Steady Boxing program, everybody has tremors, everybody is falling down and you can laugh with each other instead of laugh at someone,” he said.
“It’s real comforting. It boosts the self-esteem so that you feel confident you can come workout and not feel embarrassed with your workout program.”
Rock Steady Boxing is a nonprofit organization based in Indiana.
Since it started in 2006, the program has grown to 820 affiliates. Bar Path CrossFit in Willmar will be one of the newest affiliates.
The organization provides data and research on Parkinson’s and support and training for coaches, like Lyssa Lovejoy, who is Larson’s coach in Monticello.
Lovejoy has been teaching Rock Steady Boxing classes for three years and currently works with about 40 individuals with Parkinson’s.
The process involves a one-on-one assessment and some “tough love” workouts, she said. “It is a whole lifestyle of understanding this person.”
Larson – who wanted to bring the program to Willmar – helped Lovejoy connect with the Bar Path CrossFit owners, Jason and LuLu Schwab, who will begin offering Rock Steady Boxing classes at 10:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at their gym, located just north of Willmar on U.S. Highway 71, starting the week of Aug. 12.
There is a fee for the class, but some insurance plans will cover at least a portion of the costs. There are also grants available from a nonprofit organization Lovejoy established to remove financial barriers.
During a recent visit to the Bar Path gym, staff and volunteers were in the process of being certified and learning how to teach the class while Lovejoy served as mentor.
After hearing about the program and how it changed Larson’s life, LuLu Schwab said she and her husband decided “it was the right thing to do” to bring Rock Steady Boxing to their gym.
“We just prayed about it and thought this is what we need to do,” she said. “We don’t really have a choice. There is a need in our community.”
“Sometimes, in life, things just fall in place,” said Jason Schwab, who said he’s eager to provide a new opportunity to help people.
Lovejoy said she’s seen many positive changes happen for people with Parkinson’s after they begin the Rock Steady Boxing classes.
She gets emotional talking about how people have benefited from the program and found a “new zest” for life.
“It changes everything for them,” she said. “They’ve found something they can do and not just sit on a bike. Or that they just have to take the progression of the disease.”
The program may not be for everyone and the exercise can only do so much, she said.
“It does not cure Parkinson's. What it does is that it starts to stop the progression of it because it gives them muscle memory,” Lovejoy said. “It doesn’t cure it, but we sure do see it help.”