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Photo contributed by Kristen Schillaci / The Rock Steady program is open to men and women of all ages who have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Local affiilate owner Kristen Schillaci asks participants to commit to coming until they are physically no longer able, and uses her background as a certified occupational therapy assistant to modify the exercises. "The only … problem that prevents people from sticking it out is when they need assistance, they need a corner man and have to have someone come with them every single time," she said. Volunteers are welcome.

The national Parkinson's Foundation estimates there are nearly 1 million people living with the degenerative disease across the country. According to Kristen Schillaci, a local certified occupational therapy assistant, Dalton sees an extremely high percentage of cases.

That's not the reason she recently moved her Parkinson's-centered boxing program to neighboring Ringgold, but it doesn't hurt. Having outgrown her space in Chattanooga, where she launched the area's first affiliate of the Rock Steady non-contact boxing program four years ago, she did need more room for participants, but that included her existing ones.

"I had one boxer say 'I'm not going to come back on Monday because it's too crowded,'" Schillaci said.

The 14,000-square-foot gym she's in now not only allows the participants more room to spread out, it has 10 times the equipment, an MMA cage that doubles as a boxing ring, and multiple floor surfaces "so all my folks are in sock feet or bare feet, which I love," said Schillaci.

Parkinson's is a neurological disorder that affects movement, so Schillaci focuses her 90-minute workouts on gross motor skills while incorporating a variety of activities such as cycling and stretching.

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Photo contributed by Kristen Schillaci / The syndicated Rock Steady program uses exercises including weight training, cycling, running, jump-roping, push-ups, core work and non-contact boxing to help participants fight off the effects of Parkinson's disease. At local affiliate owner Kristen Schillaci's new space in the Our House Studios gym — where she and fellow Rock Steady instructor Chris Tkaczyk personally work out — she says no one has to share equipment and there's plenty of room to grow the classes.

"They're really pushing past themselves with big movements, because a lot of times with Parkinson's you turn into little movements — shuffled steps, you don't swing your arms wide," she said. "The growth I've seen and the amount of improvement I've seen in boxers, it's amazing."

She likens the program and atmosphere to a combination of physical therapy and a support group, one that trades cookies and painful conversations for the chance to scream and hit things.

"How could that not be fun?" she joked, adding that even the screaming has a physical benefit for Parkinson's patients, whose diaphragms are typically weakened as the disease weakens their central nervous system, ultimately making it harder to summon the breath and force necessary to yell.

In fact, every aspect of the workouts, from each day's varying sequence of moves to the distractions and odd twists Schillaci is known for, serve a purpose in helping participants fight off the effects of Parkinson's. Schillaci said she may have them work math problems while balancing on a ball or poke their side while they're focused on a move to "split that brain up into a million pieces" in order to achieve both cognitive and physical benefits that counteract the effects of the disease.

The assessments she does every six months speak to those benefits, which go far beyond the number of sit-ups and burpees one can do. Instead, she focuses on things like how long it takes them to walk from one end of the room to the other.

If you go

Rock Steady Boxing now operates out of Our House Studios, located at 4009 Cloud Springs Road. Call 770-490-8191 or visit chattanooga.rsbaffiliate.com for more.

"Even 1 second, that's like an extra two steps where before they couldn't get their feet off the ground," she said.

Although leaving their homes during the coronavirus pandemic poses a risk to participants, Schillaci decided to reconvene classes after multiple requests from participants.

"It's just as big a risk for them to be sitting home doing nothing and allowing their Parkinson's to take over," she said.

While there is no cure for the disease, exercise, she said, has been shown to slow its progression. Her clinical background and training allows her to adapt the workouts to any ability, and she often does.

"It's kind of morbid, but a lot of times when I hand them their gel gloves on the first day, I'm like 'This is it. It's like wedding vows — till death do us part. If you have to transition to a walker or a wheelchair, I don't care, get your butt in my gym,'" Schillaci said. "I provide them a place to come kick some butt as long as they can."

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