By Ann Luongo
Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder, isn’t easily diagnosed. It can begin simply as tremors in one’s hands or arms, stiffness in the neck or limbs, difficulty with balance – all of which could simply be symptoms of something mild, like getting older, excess stress, or lack of exercise. Only a neurologist’s observations and clinical test results can diagnose it, and it can sometimes take years to come to that diagnosis. At any age, a positive diagnosis can come as a shock.
Lisa Braun of Plymouth received her diagnosis in May 2016. A lifelong runner, Braun decided she wouldn’t take this news lying down.
She knew this was a disease that could slow her quality of life over time, so she decided to take action. She and her longtime friend Kathy Murphy, a physical therapist, heard about a program called Rock Steady Boxing – a nonprofit organization that developed a non-contact boxing program to help people with Parkinson’s.
After commuting to Braintree for classes for a time, Braun decided there was a need for such a service closer to home in Plymouth County and, in August of this year, Braun and Murphy opened a Rock Steady Boxing program in the Hero Training Center at USA Fitness, in Carver. The classes consist of exercises like stretching, strength training, balance, speech, muscular endurance, hand-eye coordination and, of course, non-contact boxing. Murphy adds that they also cover falling. It’s crucial, she says, to know how to fall, due to the lack of balance the fighters can experience because of Parkinson’s.
“The people who come here are not patients, they’re fighters!” Murphy says. “We all support each other, and we welcome new fighters every week.” The studio at Hero Training Center is private, Murphy points out, so there is no need to be self-conscious. “We work on high-intensity training here. The more you do here, the better you’ll be.”
“The program was brought to New England by Lawrence native Al Latulippe, who began non-contact boxing classes for people with Parkinson’s in Lawrence, Newton, and Braintree, and now there are programs in Marshfield, Carver, and Hyannis,” Braun says.
Before each class, the fighters carefully wrap their hands. “It protects the knuckles and wrist, and keeps the fingers separated,” Braun says.
Other benefits of the program include giving fighters the opportunity to connect with others who are experiencing similar symptoms, and providing them with a good idea of their capabilities.
They can see for themselves what kinds of improvements they can often expect. They perform different exercises at each class.
“Once you’ve been diagnosed,” she adds, “you have to be very cognizant of movement, not only here, but at home, in regard to moving and stretching. You have to be able to determine how badly you really need that baking pan on the top shelf of the cabinet,” she says, laughing.
Scientific studies have shown that vigorous physical activity can slow down or sometimes even reverse the effects of Parkinson’s. Since participating in the program herself, Braun has felt much improvement and is currently free of medications.
Although a Parkinson’s diagnosis is more common around age 60, it can happen to anyone at any age. One fighter in the program, Michael Ring, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 39. Now in his 60s, he’s an active participant and loves coming to the classes. “It gets me out of the house,” he says. “I used my home gym a lot before moving to a 55+ community. The classes help me with my balance and speech.”
The voice exercises are important, Braun says. “Kathy gets them to shout.”
As word of this unique program spread and the demand for the classes increased, Rock Steady created training programs to meet the fitness levels at all stages of Parkinson’s – from the newly diagnosed to those who had been living with it for decades. “Around 60,000 people are diagnosed each year with Parkinson’s disease,” Braun says. “Most are on meds. These classes have been proven to get positive results for people with Parkinson’s.”
The program is strictly for people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Braun says their program recently received a grant from the Massachusetts chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA), which reduces tuition for all participants of the 16-week classes by $100 per person. This is a great help to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
Anyone can open a Rock Steady Boxing affiliate with the appropriate training program and certification, Braun says. To become an affiliate, visit the Rock Steady Boxing website, rocksteadyboxing.org. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and you’d like to get more information on the local program and classes, visit the “Rock Steady Boxing Plymouth County” Facebook page.