Cathie Anderson

Fitness classes offer a puncher’s chance against Parkinson’s

Fitness classes offer a puncher’s chance against Parkinson’s

Fitness trainer Melissa Tafoya runs the Sacramento region's first Rock Steady Boxing affiliate, a fitness regime that uses noncontact boxing drills to help people with Parkinson's improve their agility, hand-eye and foot coordination, muscular end
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Fitness trainer Melissa Tafoya runs the Sacramento region's first Rock Steady Boxing affiliate, a fitness regime that uses noncontact boxing drills to help people with Parkinson's improve their agility, hand-eye and foot coordination, muscular end

Fitness trainer Melissa Tafoya coaches boxers whose traitorous bodies give them a dozen reasons not to show up for class. Some lose their balance just trying to cross a room. Others wake up with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. A few have muscles so rigid that their bodies contort.

All struggle with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and just getting to class takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude.

Tafoya runs the Sacramento region’s first Rock Steady Boxing affiliate, a fitness regime that uses noncontact boxing drills to help people with Parkinson’s improve their agility, hand-eye and foot coordination, muscular endurance, speed and overall strength. Although her Rock Steady classes now take up half of her time, Tafoya said, they provide only a third of her income.

“As an affiliate, we get to choose how we want to charge,” Tafoya said. “We are told from the get go, ‘This is a fixed-income population. Ethically, you should not increase your rates as inflation happens.’ These folks do not get to work with inflation, so you should know that this is just for you to basically pay your rent.”

Tafoya charges her Rock Steady clients $100 a month, which covers three sessions a week. Her personal training clients pay $75 per session.

“It helps to keep me afloat, and it’s filling my heart beyond measure,” Tafoya said. “It’s something I never want to stop. ... Everybody tells me, ‘This is growing really fast. Why don’t you start grooming new coaches for Rock Steady?’ Well, I don’t want to stop training the fighters.”

It helps to keep me afloat, and it’s filling my heart beyond measure. It’s something I never want to stop.

Melissa Tafoya

Tafoya offers her classes out of Amadeo Novella’s Capital Strength & Performance gym, 1809 23rd St., in midtown Sacramento. Since Tafoya launched her classes in November, another Rock Steady affiliate opened in Roseville at No Excuses Training, 309 Lincoln St.

What did Tafoya think of the competition? “We need more,” she said. “We can’t do this alone.”

Tafoya and Christine Epperson, who runs the Roseville classes, trained at the Rock Steady home gym in Indianapolis, where this fitness regimen originated. Rock Steady “boxers” or “fighters” are swinging back at Parkinson’s, and every one of Tafoya’s clients who spoke with me emphasized that, while the disease comes with a life sentence, it is not a death sentence. Indeed, researchers now believe that regular, vigorous exercise can dramatically slow the disease’s progression.

Kaiser physical therapist Erin Vestal explained: “From a neurologic perspective, what they’re gaining is dopamine. It’s a neurochemical that is deficient for people who have Parkinson’s, and so when they’re exercising, particularly when they are exercising at an intense level, we see that they are utilizing dopamine more efficiently and effectively. From a movement perspective, that’s what allows them to move more normally.”

Roseville resident Ed Abbott told me that, although he still gets tired during the workouts, he has gained more self-confidence and a little bit more stamina since joining Tafoya’s classes in January.

“I’m not afraid to tackle the things that I was afraid to do before,” Abbott, 83, said. “I’m ready to get up in the morning and do whatever I have to do to keep moving. It’s really easy to say, ‘Today’s not a good day. I’ll just stay in bed.’ But I don’t. I get out and do.”

Some people find irony in the idea that people with Parkinson’s are training in a sport that is commonly believed to have led boxing legend Muhammad Ali to develop the disease. Neurologists have said that, while multiple traumas to the head likely may have caused symptoms of Parkinson’s to develop earlier in Ali’s life, it is unknown whether the battering caused it.

The Rock Steady boxers take no hits, but they deliver plenty to punching bags. Their boxing drills largely focus on developing coordination, strength and endurance. Vestal said the medical community is trying to get the message out that this type of vigorous exercise is as close to a cure as they have. People aren’t experiencing disability or changes in their cognition or depression as quickly as they might have if they weren’t exercising, she said.

Tafoya, 36, said she’s always been interested in fighting sports and went to mixed martial artist Urijah Faber’s gym, Ultimate Fitness, to study a variety of them, just to see which one spoke to her most. She thought it was going to be kickboxing, but she developed a love of boxing after studying with veteran coach, Joseph de la Guevara.

“He had this following, and all these folks ... rearranged their work schedules to work with him. I loved it,” she said. “It was so hard. I thought, ‘How come I can pick up kickboxing but boxing is so difficult?”

The sport resonated emotionally with Tafoya, she said, and she got a personal trainer to explore it more deeply.

“It rewired my brain,” she said. “I’ve had learning disabilities that were never specifically diagnosed, but I always figured out how to cope with it. ... Three years later, I start realizing that it was helping me problem solve. It was helping me break down components, bits of information. It didn’t matter what the subject was, but it helped me renavigate in my brain how I approached things and it was calming me down.”

Long before she worked with people with Parkinson’s, Tafoya had begun training clients with physical disabilities – multiple sclerosis, aging bodies, competitive athletes with debilitating injuries. She has a degree in fine art design from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but she left behind a career in graphic design after a fitness gym manager saw her training her mother for surgery and complimented her technique. He told her he would give her a job if she got the certifications, she said, and her mom encouraged her to do it. She now has credentials in personal training, corrective exercise, Rock Steady and more.

She chose to rent time at Novella’s gym because he referred to her clients with Parkinson’s as boxers and their time in the gym as boxing training. In the past, Tafoya said, she’s worked in places where young people or competitive athletes treated her clients as though they were in the way. Growing up, she said, she was often the smallest kid and her abilities and strengths were questioned. Some people wouldn’t give her the chance to prove what she could do, she said, so she felt like the misfit or the underdog.

“I understand it’s not about what you look like or what is on the outside,” said Tafoya, a Woodland native. “I can’t be successful in my job unless I peel the layers off somebody. I have to really get into why they came to see me. Usually, it’s not about the bikini body. It’s about something a lot deeper. If I can’t get to that, I can’t really help them. They won’t commit to what they need to do, and I can’t find the program that will help them. Once we do find it, everything comes together – their self-worth and value.”

I can’t be successful in my job unless I peel the layers off somebody. I have to really get into why they came to see me.

Melissa Tafoya

Tafoya’s involvement with her Rock Steady clients began at the gym door, but it hasn’t ended there. She goes to potlucks and movie nights at their homes. They carpool together to conferences on aging and Parkinson’s disease. They meet up at River Cats games.

Many of Tafoya’s clients link their discovery of the Rock Steady method to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl’s segment on how the training helped her husband, Aaron Latham, but their coach heard about it from an NPR report. Tafoya had clients whose Parkinson’s hadn’t been diagnosed fully and she thought it would be a great service to add to her business, but she had a lot on her plate and didn’t immediately explore it.

Then, she said, she went to a continuing education class where the woman in front of her had a shirt on that read: “Rock Steady San Francisco.” Tafoya saw it as kismet, and she introduced herself to the woman during a break and ended up volunteering for several months at her gym to see the impact of the training. She was content, she said, with the volunteering, but the trainers at the gym kept pushing her to go to Indianapolis for training and open an affiliate in Sacramento. She registered for a training in October 2015, so she could celebrate her birthday while she was there.

Neurologists from the University of Indiana and trainers from the Rock Steady home gym immersed Tafoya and other fitness coaches in classes. Then they dropped them into a training session with boxers who had the most severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, she said, and they began learning how to adjust their routines and drills to fit different patient levels.

“I thought, ‘Aren’t these boxers going to be a little ticked off that they’re working with strangers?’” Tafoya said. “‘Don’t they want to stay within their comfort zone and work with their (Rock Steady) family?’ What I didn’t realize was how proud they were, how safe they felt, how strong they felt and how far they had come. They wanted to teach us. ... I was one of the only ones from the West Coast, and they were so enamored with that. They said, ‘You take it to Sacramento. You grow this up. We need more of you guys.’”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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