Gary Ellis is an Alabama Bright Light delivering a blow to Parkinson’s disease

Gary Ellis is an Alabama Bright Light delivering a blow to Parkinson’s disease
When Gary Ellis got a punch in the gut with a Parkinson's diagnosis, he decided to punch back by bringing Rock Steady Boxing to Gulf Shores. (Karim Shamsi-Basha / Alabama NewsCenter)

Two years ago, Gary Ellis woke up for what seemed like any other day. Except by the afternoon, he learned Parkinson’s disease had invaded his body. Never imagining a disease like Parkinson’s coming into his house and claiming residency, Ellis was jolted.

“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I was in shock and trying to figure out what it all meant. I was unfamiliar with it and one of the things that got on my radar was the need to reduce stress and have a specific exercise program to help slow the progression,” Ellis said.

After a few visits to the doctor and some research, Ellis found Rock Steady Boxing. The noncontact sport recommended for Parkinson’s patients has 400 gyms around the world, but none were in Gulf Shores, where Ellis lives. He enlisted the help of karate studio owner Chris Wheeles, and the rest was a knockout.

“Gary called me a few months ago,” Wheeles said. “I asked him if he had Parkinson’s, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I immediately signed up for certification. We went to Indianapolis and that’s how we got it started.”

Gary Ellis and Rock Steady Boxing in Gulf Shores is an Alabama Bright Light with a puncher’s chance against Parkinson’s from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Founders of the exercise regimen operate with the following mission statement: Rock Steady Boxing gives people with Parkinson’s disease hope by improving their quality of life through a noncontact, boxing-based fitness curriculum.

“The Rock Steady boxing affiliate started 10 years ago with the first one in Indianapolis. Now there are over 400 gyms around the world. We started the one here in Gulf Shores a few months ago, and now we have over 20 people boxing three times a week,” Ellis said.

Rock Steady Boxing is the first gym in the United States fighting Parkinson’s head on. Exercises are adapted from boxing drills to improve agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength. The sport is fully noncontact. While exercises vary in intensity and duration, they have one common goal: to improve the capabilities and the quality of life of the participant.

“Intensity makes it successful. Intense sounds intimidating, but everyone operates on their own pace and their own intensity,” Ellis said. “That rapid hand-eye coordination, movement, balance and agility gained with boxing applies to battling the effects of Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s disease causes deterioration of anything related to muscles, such as balance, speech, motor skills and sensory function. More than a million people in the United States have been diagnosed with the disease.

“I just finished a 30-year career and was able to exit on a successful note with a lot of satisfaction, building a business from scratch,” Ellis said. “Frankly, this has given me more contentment and satisfaction than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It gives me great, great joy.”

Medical studies in the 1980s and ’90s found that intense exercise with emphasis on motor movement, balance, core strength and rhythm could help patients with Parkinson’s lead productive lives. A study at the Cleveland Clinic went further to state that intense exercise may even slow the progression of the disease.

“One of our boxers says he’s actively fighting Parkinson’s. He’s not sitting back and taking a pill, he is actively combating this disease,” Wheeles said. “This has made me want to be a better person. What these guys have done for me, what they’ve trusted me with. I get emotional about it. I feel almost not worthy.”

For more information about Rock Steady Boxing, visit

For information about Rock Steady Boxing in Gulf Shores, visit the Facebook page at

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at [email protected].

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