To say the past year has been an eventful one for Bob Krueger would be an understatement.

After retiring at 70, Krueger was already dealing with a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis when he had an accident requiring several weeks of rehabilitation. But the year has also brought something new to his life — boxing.

While rehabbing in Ottawa, Krueger learned about a group that met every Tuesday and Thursday at the Ottawa Recreation Comission Goppert Building. Although he dealt with the symptoms of the disease long before being diagnosed, he thought the group might help.

A progressive disease of the nervous system, Parkinson’s is marked by tremors, muscular rigidity and slow, imprecise movements, which primarily affects middle-aged individuals and the elderly.

“I was shaking, and they still think a lot of my shakes were essential tremors,” he said. “But on top of that, I have Parkinson’s too which comes with back aches, tiredness - things that you normally associate with age, but mine seemed to me to be more severe. Then I started hunching over and slow-walking.”

But Parkinson’s isn’t always an easy disease to identify. Krueger saw doctors about various symptoms he was experiencing, before he finally got an answer.

“In a way, it’s a relief because you have all of these symptoms, but no doctor puts them all together,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, you see a neurologist, and he says, ‘I think you have Parkinson’s.’ You knew it was out there, but not really what it was. Then you start reading books like crazy.”

Roberta’s story

It’s been eight years since Roberta Crooks was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Like Bob, she experienced symptoms for years before finally getting diagnosed.

Knowing there was no cure, her only choice was to research ways she could ease the symptoms or even make them go away.

And eventually, she found an outlet in boxing and enrolled in Rock Steady Boxing classes at The Parkinson’s Exercise and Wellness Center in Overland Park. It wasn’t long before she saw the benefits of the workouts. In fact, the classes helped so much she decided to take it a step further and bring a similar program to Franklin County.

“I was there for about a year, and I asked if I could become a coach,” she said. “I knew I wanted to have an exercise program in this rural area because there was nothing else like this. And it was helping my Parkinson’s. In fact, it had helped so much that I was almost back to normal for quite some time.”

Crooks, who has always been a ball of energy, was shocked to learn of her diagnosis. Despite her condition, she still remains active by taking part in regular workouts and organizing a monthly Parkinson’s support group at the Wellsville City Library.

Parkinson’s:

What is it?

Parkinson’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.

The most common symptoms associated with Parkinson’s are tremors, difficulty moving or walking and stooping or hunching over. But there are other symptoms that many do not know about like small handwriting, a soft or low voice and a loss of smell.

Crooks said the effects are different for every person, and there can be many.

“It affects you inside and out,” she said. “It affects your swallowing. It affects your speech. A lot of times, I will be hunting for a word - which is normal as you get older - but with Parkinson’s, it’s worse. I will be trying to say something to you, but I can’t quite grab what I want to say. It’s there but I can’t come up with it.”

“One of the things they use to diagnose Parkinson’s is watching a person walk. The first thing you lose is swinging your arms automatically for balance. It’s something I didn’t even realize I was doing until it was pointed out. You have to retrain your brain. Now when I walk I look like I am walking normal because I have retrained my brain to swing my arms.”

Crooks said one of the reasons she started the support group was to help people understand there were many things Parkinson’s did to affect people and brings people with different types of symptoms together.

Boxing

Earlier this year, Crooks met Pedro Marquez, who was working for the local recreation commission. Marquez had the perfect background with boxing experience and a knowledge of Parkinson’s through his class work at Kansas State University.

“I was lucky enough to meet Pedro when he started working here,” she said. “He’s what I need because I am slowing up some, and I needed someone to help with the exercise part.”

Marquez came to the ORC with a goal of starting a shadow-boxing class for seniors. He knew from working with a legendary high-school football coach in Manhattan how boxing could help slow symptoms.

“A lot of people get really depressed because there’s not a cure,” he said. “There’s not anything you can do to fix it. You just have to live with it. I knew that boxing was a way to combat Parkinson’s symptoms, and it was a way for participants to try it out. Coach was a pretty severe case, but was able to do some things that helped him. It was nice to get that experience, and to see first hand what the disease can do to you. I had studied gerontology in school, so with the classroom and real-life, I was able to use that when I met Roberta.”

Bob’s wife, LaDean, was skeptical at first. She wasn’t sure how boxing would benefit her husband.

“A lot of it is education...,” she said. “I don’t know what the average person’s idea of boxing is, but in the back of my mind I thought, ‘You’re pounding on somebody’s face.’ And these people are going to do boxing, and they don’t have any balance. So it really opened my eyes up to all the different things you can do. You’re not hitting someone’s face. You’re hitting a glove. There’s a lot to it, and it’s really fascinating.”

Marquez said boxing is a full-body workout that challenges both balance and coordination, but also incorporates memory exercises.

“I will tell Bob to throw a jab, cross and a hook - (through) that his balance and coordination are tested, and also it challenges his brain,” he said. “He still has to remember what to throw. Even for someone (who) doesn’t have Parkinson’s, when you are fatigued and moving it’s tough. It also strengthens your bone density. Boxing helps keep the body and mind sharp.”

Bob and Roberta both agree that the class has been beneficial.

“I feel better,” he said. “The shakes I still have and will have them forever. I move better, and I have more energy. I’ve lost almost 40 pounds. My blood sugar is down - which I have always struggled with. It all goes together.”

A Lifestyle

But the class isn’t just for those with Parkinson’s. Anyone wanting to gain more mobility or just get healthy is welcome to come. LaDean said she and Bob try to keep their exercise routine even if they are not able to attend a session.

“It’s a lifestyle just like eating healthy,” she said. “You can’t just all of a sudden go on a diet and expect to be healthy. You have to make that commitment, and the same thing with this, you have to make the decision to exercise everyday; to keep me moving and to keep standing up straighter. It’s important.”

But it’s not just about the workout. Part of the appeal is the fun they have together. Crooks and Marquez said one of the goals is to incorporate games and activities that make it more fun.

“I like to think of this class more like recess for older adults,” Marquez said. “Sure, we might do resistance bands for exercise, but we also throw a stuffed animal through a hula-hoop and play a memory game. Then for the last 15 minutes, we box. They seem to really enjoy it.”

Another symptom often accompanying Parkinson’s is depression. But for Bob, the boxing class - as well as the company of those he exercises with - and the physical activity both have been a big help in that area.

“That’s one of the things with this disease - it’s very emotionally stressful,” he said. “I think it takes depression away. I don’t know how, but it helps take the depression away. So I come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays and put on my boxing gloves, and he (Pedro) catches it. I almost had him today.”

For more information about the Parkinson’s support group or the exercise group, contact Crooks at 785-418-1275 or LaDean Krueger at 785-883-4285.