Fighting back: Tommy talks fitness, boxing and Parkinson's

For Tommy, fitness and physical activity has always been a way of life. During a 25-year career in the army, he was an active sportsman and was the British Army boxing coach for the last 2 years he spent in the military. When he was 58, he qualified as a personal trainer. Then at 61, Tommy faced his biggest physical challenge to date – Parkinson’s.

“I was out running with my bootcamp team one morning when I fell. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, I thought I’d just tripped,” Tommy begins. “Then I was sat watching TV one day and I had to ask my wife, Mary, if my head was shaking. She said no, but I could feel an internal tremor. A few months later, Mary looked at me and told me my head was wobbling.” After Tommy’s arm shot straight up into the air one night while he was sat at home, he visited his GP and was referred to a specialist.

Denial

Tommy’s specialist told him he had Parkinson’s, but accepting the diagnosis was not a simple process. “I didn’t know anything about Parkinson’s, so I had no real concerns. My attitude was, ‘It’s not going to affect me anyway, as I haven’t really got it.’ But I did and it took about 3 years to come to terms with that.”

During that time, Tommy carried on as normal. “If I wasn’t at the gym, I was running the boot camp. That’s how my life was at the time.” But hip problems as a result of his active lifestyle forced him to slow down. “It was then I started to notice things more. My tremor got really bad. I started drooling and I had to really think hard about
forming sentences,” he explains.

After successful surgery on his hip and a return to exercise, Tommy’s symptoms improved and it was then he decided to find out more. “I googled Parkinson’s and one of the first things that came up was Rock Steady Boxing. And from there, my journey started.”

Entering the ring

Rock Steady Boxing was established in America in 2006. The different boxing exercises help to address Parkinson’s symptoms such as tremor, balance, posture and strength, as well as increasing fitness levels.

It offers 4 levels of classes designed for those who are newly diagnosed through to people with advanced Parkinson’s. To become an accredited instructor, Tommy completed a 3-day course in Indianapolis, which was funded through donations. At times, Tommy found the course confronting. “People turned up in wheelchairs, with walking sticks, on crutches, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, is this what is waiting for me?’ “In that moment, I decided when I started running sessions, I wouldn’t have people with advanced Parkinson’s in my classes. I also had no idea what they’d be able to achieve.”

Tommy quickly changed his mind. “It was very unfair of me to think that. One man I was chatting to walked into the session using a zimmer frame. Once the warm up finished, he put his frame to one side, ran to the end of the gym and started doing squats – I had to run to keep up with him, it was amazing! It just made me realise that if you sit back and worry about what Parkinson’s might bring in the future, you’ll miss out on what you can still do.”

We can sort out the physical side of life in the gym, but anxiety and depression are a big part of Parkinson’s. So when people turn up to class ready to box, it’s brilliant.

Creating a community

Tommy has now been running 3 classes a week in Widnes since January 2019. “I want people to come to the class and leave their condition at the door. I always say if they don’t leave with a smile on their face, I’ll refund them
the class fee – and I’ve never had to do it yet!”

Tommy admits there’s a particular flavour to his classes. “I’m very aware people are working as hard as they can, but I will always try and squeeze an extra 1 or 2% out of them. I was a sergeant major – and that never leaves you,” he laughs. “If I walk around the class and people are not working hard, I will give them a piece of my mind – but they love it! They come back for the next session and they start giving it back to me. So immediately we’ve broken down barriers and we get on to the nitty gritty of working hard.”

Beyond the obvious fitness benefits, the classes have had a positive impact on people in other ways. Tommy explains: “We can sort out the physical side of life in the gym, but anxiety and depression are a big part of Parkinson’s. So when people turn up to class ready to box, it’s brilliant. There’s a great sense of camaraderie – people have made friends and now see each other outside of class. They give each other lifts to sessions. They’ve arranged socials. We’ve built a whole community.”

Beyond boxing

Alongside the boxing, Tommy works part-time as a prison administrator, having joined the prison service after leaving the army. When Tommy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, his working environment posed difficulties. “Prisoners would notice my hand shaking and accuse me of being drunk, which made things very hard.” His governor arranged the office-based role for him, which brought with it mixed emotions. “On one hand,
I was pleased I wouldn’t be bothered by inmates,” he explains. “But I quickly realised I wasn’t as familiar with computers as perhaps I should have been. It’s been a learning curve, but challenges are good.”

Boxing though is never far from Tommy’s mind. “In the next year or so, I’d like to retire so I can focus on the boxing more and increase the number of weekly sessions for people.” He continues: “I do still have bills to pay though – and I don’t want to put on that stone and a half they say you get after retirement!”

Parkinson’s is seen as a disability, but it doesn’t define you – you’re still the person you were.

Acceptance

Since his initial diagnosis and his reluctance to accept what his specialist told him that day, Tommy has come far. “I was in denial and isolated myself from people. When I was first diagnosed, I would put my hand in my pocket if I was talking to someone because it would shake. Then slowly, I ended up in a place where I thought, ‘What is it I’ve got? What can I do about it?’ Now I never hide my tremor from anyone – I’m not embarrassed.

“Parkinson’s is seen as a disability, but it doesn’t define you – you’re still the person you were. When I’m coaching, I haven’t got any illnesses. I’m not tired. I’m just me. I’m just Tommy.”

Find out more about exercise and Parkinson's.

Video

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Watch Tommy in action

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In this short film, Tommy talks more about the classes he runs and the advantages of exercise for people with Parkinson's. You can also hear from people who attend Tommy's sessions and what it has done for them.