A County Wexford woman living with early onset Parkinson’s disease has found a “life changing” non-contact boxing training programme which she says helps slow the progression of the condition.
Mary Casserly (55), from Clonroche, is now promoting its Irish roll out. She is a disciple of ‘Rock Steady Boxing’, founded in the US in 2006 to empower people with Parkinson’s to get the exercise they need, whilst also gaining emotional support from other people with the condition.
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disease which affects movement, speech and other non-motor functions. Previously considered a condition affecting people over 65, early onset Parkinson’s is now diagnosed amongst teenagers.
“I have been lucky in some ways. I have adopted the attitude that I have still a lot of living to do, and try to keep positive. It is definitely not easy at times, but there are worse diagnoses to receive,” said Mary.
She says the training regime “is not just about being fit, but staying well and stopping the condition progressing faster than it would otherwise do.”
Mary has helped establish and promote Rock Steady Boxing in New Ross (Wexford), Tullamore (Offaly), Naas (Kildare) and Kilkenny.
Subsequent to discovering the discipline on Facebook, she contacted coach Miroslaw Stankiewicz. Miroslaw is the only Irish-based Rock Steady Boxing coach, who travelled to Norway to qualify.
“With Parkinson’s, exercise is essential. You have to do it. After my diagnosis, I started yoga, and went to the gym, but felt a bit self-conscious at times. Parkinson’s causes stiffness and rigidity, so we need exercises to keep flexible and to help with balance and co-ordination. Rock Steady Boxing ticks every box for us.
“Miroslaw invited me for a trial session in Portlaoise. I remember the car journey going up, being in pain, I felt about 90 years-old. After a three-hour session, I finished feeling like I was 20 again. I thought, ‘this is what I need".
“When you are new to the condition, you do not realise what it is doing to you. I was finding stairs a struggle, I was unsure of my step. My balance had deteriorated, but I had not realised it. I found out through a balance test on my first day at Rock Steady Boxing.”
Miroslaw invited me for a trial session in Portlaoise. I remember the car journey going up, being in pain, I felt about 90 years-old. After a three-hour session, I finished feeling like I was 20 again. I thought, ‘this is what I need.
Mary’s diagnosis in late 2018 came as shock to her husband Brendan and sons David (23) and Stephen (21), but the accounts manager had long been conscious things were not right.
“Looking back, I had symptoms for a number of years. There was unexplained pain and stiffness. Then I lost my sense of smell. One of my arms was not swinging when I walked. I was losing strength in a wrist and had a lot of pain. Then I began to get tremors and I walked with a limp. My sleep was also disturbed".
“I was surprised it was Parkinson’s, but not shocked. I had become really slow. It was a gradual deterioration. There are so many different symptoms and not everybody’s experience is the same, but pain and slowness was a big issue for me. It stopped me in my tracks.”
The benefits Mary got from Rock Steady Boxing prompted her to embrace it and try to ensure as many as possible could also gain from it.
“Miroslaw was asked to host a trial class in New Ross. Then we started classes there. It went really well, so we started up in Naas. Classes are an hour and a half and very inclusive. We exercise in a circle, facing each other. We feel like a team and there is great emotional support".
Physically, for me, it has made me stronger and improved my flexibility, strength and balance. There are things I can do now that I was not able to do two years ago. Emotionally, it has invested me with a can-do attitude.
“No two classes are the same, and I think the fact that we work in pairs is very important. You get to know people. There is a very strong teamwork element. It is multi-faceted, and very different to anything else you will do. It is fun. So, you will keep doing it".
“Physically, for me, it has made me stronger and improved my flexibility, strength and balance. There are things I can do now that I was not able to do two years ago. Emotionally, it has invested me with a can-do attitude.
“The variety of exercises makes us push ourselves, but everyone works within their own ability, and safety is important. If we simply did the same routines all the time, it would not work as effectively.
“We are not treated as patients. We are treated as athletes. Medication can help with the symptoms, but does not help slow the progression.”
Due to the Covid pandemic, classes moved online in March 2020, so participants can keep exercising and connected.
“We wanted to roll it out across Ireland and we had planned to bring American coaches over, but then Covid came, so it had to be postponed, regrettably.”
However, plans to grow Rock Steady Boxing remain in place as more people should have access to programmes that help fight Parkinson’s, according to Mary.
“Connecting with other people is part of the ethos. When you are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, you can become very self-conscious and your confidence can go a bit. But Rock Steady Boxing provides a safe environment to exercise and build your confidence again".
“If I were in an ordinary gym, I’d be conscious of tremors. But you are more comfortable exercising with people who also have Parkinson’s. We also do voice exercise, as your voice can become lower with the condition, so we shout slogans and count out loud".
“People often come in shy and quiet, but even these voice exercises help with confidence and break down barriers.
“We go for coffee afterwards and people get to know each other. It is a very friendly environment.
“With Parkinson’s, exercise is your new best friend. It will keep you going, because, ultimately, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
“I am passionate about helping people with Parkinson’s and would encourage them to keep up whatever form of exercise they enjoy, be it swimming, cycling, dance, yoga or pilates. Rock Steady Boxing is working for me and could help so many other people. It should be in as many places as possible and is suitable for all ages and capabilities."