Rock Steady Boxing aims to knock out Parkinson’s symptoms

Ingrid Johnson and Mike Davis have started a new Rock Steady Boxing program for Parkinson's disease patients in Carmel Valley.
(Karen Billing)

Mike Davis and Ingrid Johnson are on a mission to empower people to fight back against Parkinson’s disease with their new Rock Steady Boxing program in Carmel Valley.

With new classes at the MMA Academy in Sorrento Valley, Rock Steady enables people to fight their disease through non-contact boxing-style fitness program that helps lessen Parkinson’s symptoms of stiffness, soreness and tremors and help people live happier lives. By exercising with coaches like Davis and Johnson who know the ropes, it is the hope that more Parkinson’s patients can fight their way out of the corner and start to function and feel better.

Rock Steady Boxing started 10 years ago in Indianapolis by a then-39-year-old prosecutor Scott Newman who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s. He had found that boxing reduced his symptoms and he wanted as many people as possible to benefit from what he’d learned, founding his non-profit and launching boxing programs.

In 2015, journalist Leslie Stahl did a story on “60 Minutes” about how her husband used the Rock Steady program to help him beat Parkinson’s and Davis said that’s how it really exploded—825 Rock Steady affiliates have popped up in all 50 states and in 20 countries.

“It’s a success of the highest proportions all over the world,” said Johnson, noting there are even classes in her native Sweden.

Davis and Johnson started their Rock Steady program in Encinitas at the Encinitas Boxing and Fitness Club three years ago and the program has grown through references and word of mouth.

“It’s been a real benefit to the community, we have had a lot of interest in the program,” Davis said.

Johnson has a masters in exercise science has worked as a trainer and Pilates instructor for 18 years while Davis brings 30 years of expertise as a boxing coach. Originally from New Jersey, Davis was a homicide detective and federal agent for 20 years, “I decided to dedicate myself to giving back to the community as much as I can,” he said.

Davis was volunteering at the Rock Steady program in Escondido when he first met Johnson, who was working with a client that had serious Parkinson’s symptoms. Their skills perfectly complemented each other and they decided to go out on their own, opening their own Rock Steady on the coast.

Over the last three years they have wanted to get a location in this under-served area—there is nothing between Encinitas and downtown San Diego. They were lucky to partner with MMA Academy and are starting with three weekly classes with the hope to expand.

In the gym, exercises are adapted from boxing drills, working on agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength.

Classes are limited to 15 to 17 people as they keep a watchful eye on every participant. Intake assessments are done to understand each individual’s symptoms and condition. Almost everyone is dealing with issues other than Parkinson’s, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer or heart disease, “If we can at least take care of Parkinson’s symptoms, we can help them get better and stronger,” Johnson said.

Davis said boxing is good for Parkinson’s because while other sports are more linear, “Boxing has weight changes and movements, there are lots of angles and everything is about balance,” he said.

A recent study at The Cleveland Clinic suggested that certain kinds of intense exercise may be nuero-protective and actually slow disease progression. “It’s the intensity that brings the results and reduces the symptoms,” Johnson said.

As a longtime boxing instructor Davis knows how hard to push people and to teach them that they are their only limit.

“The thing we have to do most is turn the switch in their heads, to look at themselves as not a gradually debilitated patient but to show them that they are in the ring, they are a boxer, they are a fighter,” Davis said.

Davis said Johnson provides the foundation for the program and has a knack for helping build personal connections. Outside of the physical, one of the most important aspects of Rock Steady is building relationships with other fighters. As Johnson said, they share many of the same physical challenges and emotional difficulties and the class gives them much-needed social interaction with peers.

“Dear friendships have formed and there is camaraderie as they root for each other,” Johnson said.

During a recent stretch session in class, one fighter was experiencing so much stiffness in his body that he couldn’t roll over to complete the stretch. The whole class worked together to motivate him and offer emotional support, doing a countdown for him to accomplish the task on his own.

“It’s amazing to see,” Davis said of the many strength-building transformations he has witnessed. “One wife came up to me to say ‘Thank you, for giving me my husband back.’”

“It fills a hole in your heart.”

The Sorrento Valley Rock Steady affiliate is located at 3962 Sorrento Valley Road, suite 900. For more information, visit or call (760) 688-8266.