ST. GEORGE — Daniel Dail's eyes are locked tight on the punching bag in front of him as sweat drips down his face. His stance is solid as he puts his boxing gloves up in preparation.
As soon as he gets Coach Jens Howe's signal, he puts all of his energy into forcefully hitting the bag as he lets out a yell.
This isn't a scene at some specialty boxing gym. Dail isn't a trained sportsman, but a retired Southern Utah University professor with Parkinson's disease.
All 10 seniors in the class with him have been diagnosed with the progressive disease.
The program is called Rock Steady Boxing. It's designed to help those with Parkinson's improve their balance, motor skills and speech through non-combat boxing and exercise.
The 15 participants, who range in age from 27 to 83 years old, come to Snap Fitness in Cedar City for an hour-and-a-half up to five times a week for the combined physical therapy workout led by a certified instructor.
After only three weeks of classes, they are all in agreement — it's working.
A literal fight
Dail first noticed something was wrong years before he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson's. His mystery malady forced the former chairman of the agriculture and nutritional science department at SUU to retire in 2005.
That same year, he began to suspect that it could be the same debilitating disease that had most notably afflicted actor Michael J. Fox and boxer Muhammad Ali.
He was officially diagnosed in 2008. Despite his early hunch, he was still in shock. He didn't realize the shrinking handwriting, loss of smell and soft voice were actually early indicators.
"I never thought this could happen to me," Dail recounted. "But as soon as you begin researching it on the Internet I realized I had been displaying symptoms up to 10 years before. But I didn't put it all together until I got the diagnosis."
For years, he worked with doctors to find a medication regiment that would mask the symptoms as the progressive and incurable disease took its course. He was willing to try anything to gain some semblance of his former life back, including a physical therapist's suggestion of boxing.
He was interested in the sport and it helped with some of the symptoms, but just punching a bag in the basement of his home wasn't enough. It didn't have the purpose or structure for it to truly be effective.
Eventually, he discovered Rock Steady Boxing. The organization promotes non-contact boxing to improve the quality of life for those with Parkinson's disease. Dail explained that the rigorous exercise triggers the neuroplasticity in the brain, which pushes it to begin to repair itself and increase functioning. While it doesn't cure the disease, it can slow the progression.
Unfortunately, there wasn't a Rock Steady Boxing class offered in southern Utah — let alone the state.
So, Dail took matters into his own hands and approached the Center for Rural Health at SUU about starting to class. They were eager to try.
Exercise best weapon
Howe, a senior in the Rural Health Scholar program, traveled to Indiana to complete the training program to become a certified instructor. His training focused on learning about the disease and how to best help patients.
Typically, about three of the five classes each week are focused on boxing. They'll focus on forced intense exercise, similar to the common High Intensity Interval Training, where 30-seconds of intense exercise is followed by a rest period, Howe explained.
The two other training days are devoted to more traditional, but just as important, exercises. Ground work, such as doing short intervals of planks, are common because it helps them maintain the ability to stand up.
"There's a huge risk with Parkinson's disease of falling," Howe said. "This can actually help save people's lives, so we're doing a lot of things to help their functions in regular everyday life."
Each participant with Parkinson's is paired with a Rural Health Scholar student from SUU. They provide guidance on the technique and oftentimes help them regain their balance or take off their gloves.
Even just three weeks into classes, Hawe has seen tremendous physical changes.
"They're standing up taller, their balance is better and their coordination has progressed a ton," he said. "It's amazing how much they are improving."
More than physical
The class also has a fair share of secondary benefits.
Each week, the men in the class begin to push each other more to work harder and to keep going even though the exercise can be challenging. But the program has given him more useful hours in his day.
It gives Dail a sense of purpose. Previously, the retiree would find himself feeling exhausted by 11 a.m. due to the fatigue associated with the disease. Instead of feeling exhausted, the energy from the class carries him well into the afternoon.
But Parkinson's disease affects much more than just the individual. Many people diagnosed with Parkinson's are no longer able to drive and can't keep up with some day-to-day activities. Instead, their spouse, family members or other caregiver are tasked with their care.1 comment on this story
During the boxing class, the partners of each attendee can be found waiting watching and waiting in a neat row of chairs against one of the walls. Howe joked that the group of mostly women are their "corner men." They are there to provide cheer on their husbands or brothers, but they also offer each other support. Each of the women are going through a similar situation, so the hour-and-a-half class provides them with some time to socialize and talk about what they are going through.
For Dail, the class is a vital part of his battle against Parkinson's. While the exercise might be challenging, it's a price he's willing to pay to pay to have more time with his 5-year-old grandson.
"Every person in this room knows we can't defeat Parkinson's, but we can put up a heck of a fight," Dali said after class. "And Parkinson's know it's been in a fight today."