He had retired from a demanding career that included running medical facilities, and he had always been active — running, cycling, walking — so when Bob Scudder was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he naturally did not shrink from the challenge.
He just didn’t realize that his fight would involve actually training for a fight.
Within weeks of being diagnosed with the degenerative neurological disease in late 2017, Scudder, on the recommendation of his doctor, showed up at the gym of the then-new Richmond affiliate of Rock Steady Boxing, a program that aims to help Parkinson’s patients by putting them through the rigors of a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum.
A key phrase is “non-contact.” Nobody is punching anyone. The emphasis is on such things as agility, speed, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength as a way to improve their quality of life.
And, in Scudder’s case, it seems to have worked.
When Scudder was first diagnosed, doctors said he was at Stage 2, considered a moderate form of the disease that affects movement. According to medical evaluations after more than a year of regular RSB workouts, as well as medication, Scudder’s condition has been downgraded to Stage 1, the mildest form of the disease.
“I’m feeling very good with better energy and pretty darn good balance,” said Scudder, 78, who attends at least three RSB workouts a week. “Even my appetite seems improved. I think the exercise has made a pretty dramatic difference.”
There is no cure for Parkinson’s, although medications can help control symptoms — such as tremors and stiffness — and exercise is also considered important, though it hasn’t always been so.
“Years ago ... the research wasn’t there to support the exercise, even though physical therapists were seeing the evidence of it,” said Liesl Hymes, a physical therapist who, along with fellow physical therapist Lindsay Dawson, co-founded RSB Richmond.
“So a lot of people were told not to exercise because they had an increased risk of falling, or they went home and gave up and sat on the couch. But now the important thing is research shows physical activity is definitely beneficial.”
RSB, with headquarters in Indianapolis and affiliates worldwide, was founded in 2006. The idea evolved from a former Golden Gloves boxer trying to help a friend diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s by designing a fitness program to attack the disease. The basic concept: Rigorous exercise could have a positive effect on Parkinson’s patients.
During the 75-minute workouts at RSB Richmond, participants put on boxing gloves and hit a heavy bag or throw punches at a smaller bag. They walk on a balance beam (only a few inches off the floor), navigate an obstacle course and stretch — among other exercises — all as rock music plays in the background.
“Part of the reason is because it’s fun,” says Dawson, “and part of the reason is we want the music to be turned up just a little bit so that the fighters have to work on voice activation and voice projection so their vocal muscles stay strong, as sometimes these can get weak with Parkinson’s.”
Participants are at various stages of Parkinson’s and are assigned to separate groups — either the Fearless Fighters or the Heavy Hitters — depending on their physical capabilities. Some, like Scudder, carry on quite well on their own, while others need the assistance of spouses or caregivers, while some join in from wheelchairs or rollators. But the benefit is available to all, Hymes said.
“Even people dependent on caregivers are seeing improvements that make a huge difference in their day-to-day life,” she said.
Scudder’s wife, Dougie, typically attends two RSB workouts a week with her husband, and is impressed by both the activity — “I get a really good workout,” she says — and the vibe.
“There’s an amazing camaraderie,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat, so to speak, and everyone is so encouraging. We’re all just talking and joking and having fun.
“It feels right.”
Scudder — who went into the Navy as a dentist and later became a medical administrator before winding up running his own business as an executive and leadership coach — said the social aspect of the classes seems as important as the physical component.
“Everyone is cheering everyone else on,” he said. “It’s very nurturing for me.”