Life Extension Magazine®

Issue: Jul 2019

Colleen Sturgess: Giving Parkinson’s Patients a Fighting Chance

Gym owner Colleen Sturgess is a certified trainer in Rock Steady Boxing, a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum, scientifically proven to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. Sturgess explains its success and how it provides much more than exercise.

By Laurie Mathena.

When you walk into the Beyond Fitness gym in Delray Beach, Florida, you’ll see people running boxing drills, punching speed bags, doing pushups, and jumping rope.

But this isn’t your typical gym—and these aren’t your typical clients.

These individuals all have Parkinson’s disease.

And they’re not just working out; they’re taking part in a program that has been scientifically proven to slow the progression of their disease. It’s a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum called Rock Steady Boxing.

Non-contact boxing uses the fundamental moves of boxing to improve coordination, timing and aerobic capacity without actually making contact with another person. This reduces the chance of any sort of injury while improving physical stamina.

Rock Steady Boxing’s mission is to “empower people with Parkinson’s disease to fight back”—a mission that Beyond Fitness owner Colleen Sturgess has taken to heart.

Sturgess, 38, has more than 14 years of experience as a fitness teacher and trainer, and has earned more than a dozen fitness certifications from organizations such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. But it wasn’t until she became certified as a Rock Steady Boxing trainer that she truly found her calling.

“I fell in love with it, and realized this was what I wanted to do,” said Sturgess.

While Sturgess holds classes at her gym for many specialty populations, including those with multiple sclerosis, autism, and Down syndrome, her biggest focus is on people with Parkinson’s.

Through the Rock Steady Boxing program, Sturgess helps more than 100 individuals with Parkinson’s fight back against the disease, and she sees incredible results.

“The participants are able to move better, sleep better, and think better,” said Sturgess. “They have better balance, they’re stronger, and they have more energy. Their overall quality of life is better. And they’re happier, too.”

Those improvements strike at the heart of Parkinson’s, which is a degenerative movement disorder that causes deterioration in motor skills, balance, and speech. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but evidence shows that participating in these classes can improve the quality of life for people in all stages of the disease.

“These boxing classes slow down the progression of the disease,” said Sturgess. “They help the brain start making more connections, and ultimately help the participants improve their quality of life.”

The first program of its kind, Rock Steady Boxing incorporates various exercises that focus on speed, agility, balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility. Taught in a circuit-training format, exercises include activities like high knees, agility drills with a rope ladder, punching-bag drills with alternating hands or while standing on one foot, and much more.

The classes are designed to push people beyond their limits, but what the participants especially appreciate about them is the atmosphere.

“One of the things I like so much about the program is that it’s fun,” said Jeff Swartz, 62, who has been taking the classes for more than a year. “It’s not a chore to go work out. It’s a kick.”

Mary Goldfarb, 55, agreed.

“It’s a positive environment the minute you walk through the door,” said Goldfarb. “Colleen is very creative. Every class is different every time we go.”

Sturgess provides three different class levels based on the stages of the disease, from those in the earliest stages to those who use wheelchairs.

“If they’re using a wheelchair or walker, we’ll work on teaching them how to stand up or use their legs a little more. And if they can’t do certain exercises, we’ll give them modifications,” said Sturgess. “Sometimes they do this along with physical therapy, and sometimes instead of physical therapy.”

Backed by Science

Boxer holding a water bottle

Rock Steady Boxing was launched in 2006 by former Indiana prosecutor Scott Newman, who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40. A few years after his diagnosis, Newman began one-on-one boxing training, and something remarkable happened: He saw a dramatic improvement in his physical health, agility, and daily functioning.

As news of Newman’s incredible results spread, other Parkinson’s patients wanted to experience the benefits for themselves. Soon, an Affiliate Certification Training program was developed that could give people the tools necessary to implement the program in their own facilities. And in just a little more than a decade, Rock Steady Boxing ballooned into a worldwide phenomenon, with the program being implemented in more than 700 facilities across the United States, Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.

Rock Steady’s remarkable success is a testament to one simple fact: It works.

The program has produced such remarkable results that researchers took notice and wanted to put it to the test for themselves. In a case series published in the journal Physical Therapy, researchers followed six patients with Parkinson’s disease who attended between 24 and 36 boxing classes over 12 weeks.* The participants also had the option of continuing the classes for a total of 24 or 36 weeks.

The researchers concluded that, “Despite the progressive nature of Parkinson’s disease, the patients in this case series showed short-term and long-term improvements in balance, gait, activities of daily living, and quality of life after the boxing training program.”

Having a scientific study showing the benefits can go a long way toward validating the program. But those involved in Rock Steady didn’t need a study to tell them it works – they’ve seen the results firsthand.

Improving One Life at a Time

Colleen Sturgess and her clients

Mary Goldfarb and her husband Mark have only been attending Rock Steady Boxing classes at Beyond Fitness for a few months, but Mary says she noticed improvements right away.

“I have better balance, and it has helped my memory and my overall attitude,” said Mary, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s more than 10 years ago.

Mary’s husband Mark doesn’t have Parkinson’s, but he attends classes along with Mary to participate, as well as to help out with other people in the class.

“You have people who can hardly move when they get in there. But then when they go through class, it’s like they escape from the reality that they have Parkinson’s,” said Mark. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Swartz has experienced similar results. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 14 years ago, but he’s only been taking the classes for a little over a year.

“I’ve always worked out,” said Swartz, “but since taking the classes, my physical condition is better, my coordination is better, and my boxing is a lot better.”

Swartz says that if you have Parkinson’s, staying in shape is not optional.

“Everyone I know who stays fit does much better than they would have if they didn’t stay fit,” said Swartz. “You have to keep moving and fight this thing.”

In fact, exercise is so critical that doctors have started recommending it to their Parkinson’s patients – and in some cases, they have specifically recommended taking Rock Steady Boxing classes.

“A Parkinson’s doc at the Cleveland Clinic in Florida told us that the best thing you can do to keep going is to have a great attitude and exercise,” said Mark Goldfarb. “It’s a prescription that we fill with Colleen and her gym three to four times a week.”

The classes at Beyond Fitness are led by the powerful duo of Sturgess and Morgana Rothbard, a physical therapy and rehab specialist.

“Not only do they have a master teacher in Colleen,” said Rothbard, “They also have a master body therapist in every class. I’m there helping with alignment, helping people stand up tall, adjusting your feet, and in general helping you get full movement out of the exercise.”

It’s a pairing that sets Beyond Fitness apart.

“Our students come from all over the states,” said Rothbard. “And they all say that our classes aren’t like anything they’ve experienced before. I’ve witnessed in our classes people getting out of their wheelchairs and walking. It’s a real gift that we have here.”

Beyond Boxing

Colleen Sturgess and clients

As the name itself implies, Beyond Fitness provides much more than exercise classes. Sturgess offers a support group once a month, where individuals learn what foods to eat (like vegetables, beans, and greens) and what foods to avoid (like nightshade vegetables, caffeine, and meat), and are also given information on avoiding pesticides, preservatives, and chemicals.

This is especially important in Parkinson’s disease because, as Sturgess explained, only 10% of Parkinson’s is genetic, which means that 90% is due to other environmental factors.

In addition, Beyond Fitness offers one-on-one sessions with Rothbard, who also serves as the gym’s nutritional counselor. Rothbard believes that proper diet and supplementation help produce the best possible results. And while she carefully tailors dietary and supplementation programs to each individual, there are a handful of nutrients that stand out. These include zinc, glucosamine and chondroitin, omegas, coenzyme Q10, B vitamins, and amino acids, to name a few.

“Parkinson’s is a breakdown of the nervous system and the nerves,” said Rothbard. “We’re helping people rebuild their body, so I recommend nutrients that are going to rebuild muscle tissue and help the synapses in their brain connect.”

Melatonin is high on her list as well.

“Many of these individuals suffer from depression and don’t sleep. Melatonin will help them get deep sleep so their body can rejuvenate,” said Rothbard.

Sturgess, herself, takes numerous supplements to help support her overall health, including probiotics, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), holy basil leaf, calcium, flaxseed oil, and various Ayurvedic herbs.

Beyond Limitations

Ultimately, Sturgess’s goal is to look beyond her clients’ limitations, and to inspire everyone who walks through the door. It’s a mission her clients especially appreciate about her.

“I wish you could bottle Colleen’s ingredients. I’ve never met anyone with such passion for people,” said Mark.

And that really strikes at the heart of what Beyond Fitness is all about. Because while the classes themselves might produce the bulk of the physical benefits, the secret ingredient is in the relationships that are formed. The participants have a camaraderie with which only those doing battle together in the trenches can identify.

“When you’re with people going through the same thing, you don’t feel like you’re all alone going through this terrible condition,” said Mary.

“When they’re given a diagnosis that has no cure, these classes give them hope,” said Sturgess. “They’re fighting for their lives and cheering each other on. It’s inspiring.”

* Phys Ther. 2011 Jan;91(1):132-42.


Colleen Sturgess has a degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a personal trainer for 14 years before opening Beyond Fitness gym in 2016.

To contact Beyond Fitness, call 561-441-4444 or visit www.beyondfitnessdelray.com. To find a Rock Steady Boxing class near you, visit www.rocksteadyboxing.org.


If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.

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