Betty White, crouching, feinted left and slid to the right. Jab. Jab. Cross — her gloved fists tapping out a rhythm all their own as she circled a heavy bag.
Fit and focused, White hits the gym in St. Paul with other members of Rock Steady Boxing for an hour, three mornings a week.
That White was here on a recent Thursday, sweating in a noncontact boxing class, would surprise no one who knew the athlete she once was. As a high schooler in Oklahoma, she earned all-state honors in basketball, part of a team that captured three straight state championships. She moved on to intramurals and club basketball, volleyball and track in college in the days before Title IX created women's varsity teams.
"I was always pretty athletic," said White, 70, remembering when she was outrunning classmates in middle school.
What was a surprise — a heartbreaking, life-altering gut-punch — was the news she received in 2014. That's when a neurologist gave a name to the fumbling with her seat belt, the sluggishness as she walked and the futile attempt to mix a salad in a bowl at Christmas: Parkinson's disease.
"When he said 'Parkinson's,' I started crying," she remembers. "He said, 'Why are you crying?' I wanted to slap his face."
Another neurologist, with a more empathetic bedside manner, later confirmed the diagnosis.
"I remember thinking, 'I've been so athletic all these years and now I can't do anything. My life is over,' " White said. "I stayed in that slump for a little bit."
It's not an easy thing when a body and mind that once ran fast, jumped high and seemingly did whatever asked of them — through college, a master's degree, motherhood and a career as an elementary school counselor — begin betraying you. White admits she thought about giving up, at least the idea of staying fit, gaining about 60 pounds in the process.
"I mean, what was the point?" she said.
Then, during a trip with her husband, John, to help their daughter with her baby, White watched an episode of "60 Minutes." In it, Leslie Stahl talked about her husband's struggles with Parkinson's — and the Rock Steady Boxing program that was helping him move and feel better.
Moving better, feeling better
Parkinson's disease is a degenerative movement disorder that can cause deterioration of motor skills, balance, speech and sensory function. There is no cure. The Parkinson's Foundation estimates more than 1 million people in the U.S. have Parkinson's disease, with more than 60,000 people diagnosed each year. According to its website, Rock Steady Boxing, founded in 2006 in Indiana, is the first gym in the country dedicated to the fight against Parkinson's.
The idea to use boxing training techniques followed a number of studies that indicate rigorous exercise — emphasizing gross motor movement, balance and rhythm — could help improve range of motion, flexibility and gait of people with Parkinson's. More recent research suggests that certain kinds of exercise may slow disease progression.
Rock Steady started in the Twin Cities in 2016, said Kim Heikkila, co-director of Rock Steady in St. Paul. White joined in 2017, when the program was at Uppercut Gym in Minneapolis, and followed the program to CoMotion: Center for Movement in St. Paul after Uppercut closed in 2019.
White said the program has her moving better, feeling better. That, and a diet focusing on grass-fed meats and only certain types of vegetables — called Plant Paradox — helped her shed the weight she'd gained.
"I tell you that it has saved my life," White said of Rock Steady. "I believe that."
After the pandemic hit, White paused her participation. She said she didn't feel comfortable going to the gym. And she really didn't like taking classes on Zoom.
After getting vaccinated, she returned, this time with her husband. Earlier this year, John White became a certified Rock Steady Boxing coach.
"I saw how much she enjoyed it. And I saw people in there every week, trying hard to improve their lives," said John, a retired Target executive. "I thought, 'If I want to have Betty stay involved as long as possible, I should coach.' "
He taught his first solo class in April.
"Now they come to the gym together, husband and wife, coach and boxer, fighting back against Parkinson's together," Heikkila said in an e-mail.
The Whites are also the only Black members of Rock Steady St. Paul. In fact, Heikkila said African-Americans and other people of color are underrepresented among Rock Steady boxers and in research about Parkinson's disease. And they are underserved by the Parkinson's health care system. CoMotion has received a grant from the Parkinson's Foundation to try to attract more Black and Latino people with Parkinson's to its programs.
While the exact number of people who have Parkinson's is hard to determine because many people do not get diagnosed in the early stages of the disease, several studies have found it is more common in whites than in Blacks or Asians. Whether that is because the disease is not as prevalent — or just is not getting diagnosed — is unclear.
The Whites, who live in Minnetonka, say they want to help as much as they can. Betty, John said, has gained so much from the class.
"I like to see her happy. And she is much happier and much stronger and takes on Parkinson's with a whole different attitude," he said.
"It doesn't eliminate Parkinson's, but it gives her a tool to deal with it."