Fighting Back Together

Johnson City’s Rock Steady boxers gathered together last week to hear an announcement that their biweekly classes will soon be moving to a larger space. The program has been growing rapidly and currently boasts 20 to 25 participants each week. PHOTO BY DAVE ONGIE

By Dave Ongie, News Editor

It’s not too often you hear a small business owner stand in front of his or her clients and express the desire to one day see his or her business become obsolete.

But that was the case last Thursday as Lisa Whitfield, owner of Rock Steady Boxing Johnson City, addressed the boxers who train in her program twice a week. If a cure is found for Parkinson’s disease, Whitfield reasoned, there would be no need for Rock Steady Boxing. Until a cure is found, however, Whitfield is finding fulfillment in helping her clients fight back against the disease, which afflicts between 1 and 1.5 million Americans.

“The purpose of the program is to help combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s,” Whitfield said. “It’s based off of forced intense exercise and incorporates the principles of boxing.”

For decades, medical studies have indicated that a rigorous exercise program emphasizing gross motor movement, balance, core strength and rhythm could help people with Parkinson’s improve their posture, gait, range of motion and flexibility. As it happens, a non-contact boxing regimen seems to work wonders for those who live with the disease.

The Rock Steady Boxing program was developed in 2006 after Scott Newman, a prosecutor in Indiana, was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40. Newman’s friend, Vince Perez, drew upon his experience as a Golden Gloves Boxer to help Newman put together a training regimen designed to attack the disease.

Rock Steady Boxing has become a family affair for Whitfield, who has been joined in her current endeavor by her husband and her parents. From left, Ron and Freddie Murray; Chad and Lisa Whitfield. PHOTO BY DAVE ONGIE

Whitfield, a personal trainer, admitted that she really didn’t know much about Parkinson’s until she started working with a client living with the neurological disorder. After her client went to Indianapolis to become certified as a Rock Steady trainer, she returned to Whitfield with a straightforward message.

“She came back and said, ‘We need this program,’ ” Whitfield recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t really want to start a business.’ ”

By that, Whitfield meant she didn’t want to start another business. She was already plenty busy as a personal trainer, and the thought of branching out into a new discipline involving group fitness was a bit overwhelming. Nonetheless, Whitfield got certified and started Rock Steady Johnson City in October of 2016 with six clients.

Last summer, the group hit double digits, and quickly swelled to its current level of 20-25 participants each week. Whitfield attributes the growth of the program – the only one of its kind between Knoxville and Asheville – to word-of-mouth. Her clients who are experiencing improvement with their symptoms tell their neurologists about it, and area neurologists in turn tell their patients with Parkinson’s about Rock Steady Boxing.

“Neurologists started looking into it, and now they’re giving us very regular referrals,” Whitfield said.

Those who attended last Thursday sang the praises of Rock Steady. Jerry Greene has been participating in the program for about two years after his wife saw Whitfield talking about the program on television.

“By the time I came down here, I really couldn’t hardly pick up my feet,” Greene said. “I couldn’t move. I’ve made such an improvement.”

While several participants talked about the strides they’ve made at Rock Steady, they all agreed the physical improvements they’re enjoying have been hard-earned. Sessions start with some stretching but soon rev up into a blur of motion.

“We have great coaches, and they make it fun,” said Judy Hensley, a longtime participant. “They say the benefit for the Parkinson’s is something called forced exercise. They want to push you just a little bit past where you’re feeling comfortable.”

Mark Dugger puts up his dukes during a training session at Rock Steady Boxing Johnson City last Thursday. PHOTO BY DAVE ONGIE

Whitfield said the endeavor is rewarding because she’s never seen another exercise program have such a huge impact on a group of people. Whitfield’s second business has also become a family affair – her husband Chad is an attorney, but he has also become a certified Rock Steady trainer. Her parents Ron and Freddie Murray also lend a hand during the Tuesday and Thursday sessions.

The family feel extends to the boxers, who gathered last Thursday to hear Whitfield’s news that the program will be moving to a larger location inside Lifestyles Fitness Center in Johnson City at the beginning of April. Whitfield’s dream of a cure for Parkinson’s may not be a reality, but until it is, her Rock Steady boxers are going to keep putting up a fight.

And they’re in this fight together.

“I’ve never met a better bunch of people than what’s here,” said Tom Crawford. “The thing about it is, they’ll check on you at home. When the phone rings, it might be one of the boxers.

“When you get old, you lose contact with a lot of people. But these people here – they’re some of the finest people I’ve ever been associated with.”

For more information on Rock Steady Boxing Johnson City, contact Lisa Whitfield by phone at 423.943.7191, or email her at


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