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Punching Back at Parkinson’s Disease

By Paul Lonardo

On a warm Saturday morning in mid-August, Richard Gingras, the owner of Fight For Fitness, a boxing gym in Pawtucket, is smiling and talking loud as he instructs a class. This is no dirty, rundown old boxing gym like the kind you see in movies, and Richard looks nothing like Mick from the Rocky films. The gym is clean and neat and Richard is youthful and fit and full of energy. This is no ordinary class, either. Most of the men are 60 and over and are eagerly following the instructions shouted by Richard and Paula Silvia, his assistant. The men are guided through a series of stretching, stamina and strength building exercises. It is a fun, interactive, social setting as much as it is a workout; the men are smiling and perspiring in the summer swelter. They take plenty of water breaks because dehydration is a particular problem for people with neuromuscular diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease, which all the members of the class are battling in varying degrees.

With a dynamic personality, Richard is engaging and outgoing, with an enthusiasm that is contagious. He is a former professional boxer and is self-educated about Parkinson’s. He is a member of the Rhode Island American Parkinson Disease Association and speaks regularly at symposiums on the topic and the benefits of physical activity in the treatment of the long-term physical and emotional debilities of the condition.

Two dozen men battled Parkinson’s disease in that morning’s class, and Richard, who has more than 100 participants in his Rock Steady Boxing classes at 65 Blackstone Ave.,

Pawtucket, believes that he gets as much out of the program as the people he teaches.

“What I get from them is very rewarding to me,” Richard says. “They reward me with love.”

Parkinson’s disease is a long-term disorder of the central nervous system, which can cause deterioration of motor skills. As the disease progresses and neurons continue to be lost, the medications taken to control the disorder become less effective, producing complications marked by involuntary shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty walking. Behavioral and cognitive problems may also occur, with depression and anxiety also quite common. Other symptoms can include sensory, sleep, and emotional problems. The cause of Parkinson’s disease is generally unknown, but believed to involve both genetic and environmental factors. Parkinson’s disease typically occurs in people over the age of 60, with males more often affected than females. An estimated 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease, with 60,000 diagnosed each year. There is no cure for Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is clearly a formidable foe. However, there is hope. Various studies support that rigorous exercise, specifically ones emphasizing gross motor movement, balance, core strength, rhythm, and hand-eye coordination, can favorably impact a patient’s range of motion, flexibility, posture, gait, and activities related to daily living. There is also some very encouraging evidence suggesting that these very same activities can actually slow progression of Parkinson’s, inducing brain repair and accompanying behavioral recovery.

Entering the ring, the challenger is Rock Steady Boxing, an innovative boxing-inspired fitness program that has been showing amazing results for people living with Parkinson’s.

“The word boxing scares some people off,” says Mike Achin, a Parkinson’s sufferer and boxer at Rock Steady Boxing New England. “They think we get in the ring and pound each other. We do everything else a boxer would do, such as footwork (no shuffling), and stretching muscles so we don’t become rigid and hunched forward. After we warm up, we do a good 15 to 20 minutes of stretching, walking or jogging. This is so important in fighting the stiffness that PD tries to give our body. Last but not least, we get our hands taped up and put the gloves on. It feels good to let loose and pound that bag. You are swinging with your left and right hand, your good side and your bad side. You are stretching to hit the bag. You are using footwork. All things that we PD fighters have trouble with from time to time.”

Rock Steady Boxing is designed to be fun, combining an exercise program within a strong social element, which is just as important. Exercises are largely adapted from the training drills undertaken by boxers, who must condition themselves for optimal agility, speed, muscular endurance, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength to defend against and overcome opponents. At Rock Steady Boxing, Parkinson’s disease is the opponent. Exercises vary in purpose but they are all intended to improve balance and stability by forcing movements in all planes of motion.

The seed for what would eventually become Rock Steady Boxing began in 2006 when a former Indianapolis prosecutor, Scott Newman, who after being diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s, began one-on-one boxing training with a friend and former Golden Gloves boxer. This non-contact, boxing-inspired fitness routine so dramatically improved Newman’s physical health, agility and daily functioning that he and his partner began offering a boxing training program to anyone with Parkinson’s, eventually opening an independent gym in 2010.

As word of this unique program spread, and requests began to come in from people all over inquiring about the how to fight Parkinson’s in the ring, the Indianapolis prosecutor and the boxer created a training program. It’s called “Rock Steady Training Camp,” and it is a three-day training seminar that teaches other trainers how to replicate the Rock Steady training model and methodology.

The Rock Steady Method is designed with physical therapists, occupational therapists, boxing coaches, personal trainers, activity directors and anyone who works with people with Parkinson’s in mind.

Richard Gingras has been running his gym, Fight to Fitness, for over six years. His boxing facility has been affiliated with the Rock Steady Boxing program for 2 ½ years now. For him, it all began about three years ago, when Michael Quaglia walked into his gym.

“I was suffering with Parkinson’s and in pretty rough shape,” Michael says. “I was looking for an answer to help me feel better; something other than medication. I discovered Rock Steady Boxing online and saw a couple videos, and I wanted to find out more because I saw that it helped a lot of people. That’s when I tracked down Richard. He took me in and started training me. I started feeling better within three months. It was amazing.”

“He was in pretty rough shape,” Richard says about Michael, “but as I began to train him in my regular boxing classes, I began to notice a gradual improvement in his motor ability and coordination.”

By this time, Richard had heard about the Rock Steady Boxing program, and he was so amazed at the prospect of helping other people with Parkinson’s that he flew out to Indianapolis to find out more about the program. He was impressed when he realized just how beneficial this program was for people with Parkinson’s, and after attending the training program at their facility, he was certified in the Rock Steady way. They provided Richard with information about Parkinson’s and the kind of exercises that would be most beneficial to the people he would be training at his gym, but he still had to do a lot of research on his own to learn more about the people he would be trying to help.

“The program provided an exercise training guideline,” Richard says, “but it was very basic. It didn’t apply to everyone across the board because everyone is different. There is a diverse demographic of age and ranges of disability, so you pretty much have to tailor an individual workout for each person.”

Richard educated himself, reading all he could about this debilitating condition in order to develop a firm knowledge so that he could provide the best care possible.

“One of the problems I see is how people perceive Parkinson’s,” Richard says. “They just see the gait and tremor, but they don’t realize that the non-motor symptoms are much more aggressive than the motor symptoms. The anxiety and depression that goes along with Parkinson’s is serious. Blood pressure, sleeping disorders, and numerous other anatomical issues are involved. There’s much more to it than a simple tremor or a shaking hand. In my classes, I try to make their mind, body and spirit stronger than Parkinson’s, and make the condition as insignificant as possible.”

Richard works hard to ensure that each man gets help not just in the physical aspect of Parkinson’s but the mental and social aspects of the disorder, as well. Judging by the smiles on the faces of everyone taking part Richard’s Rock Steady Boxing classes, and the numbers or participants that continue to grow in number, it seems to be working well.

You have to treat the human being, not the Parkinson’s is Richard’s philosophy.

Richard is in the process of opening up a separate business to further help people with Parkinson’s as well as those with other neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s, stroke and dementia. It is going to be called Parkinson’s Place, and it will be located in the space on the second floor above his gym in Pawtucket. Stay tuned for more information on that as Richard and the members of his classes come out swinging against Parkinson’s at Rock Steady Boxing New England.

For more information visit: http://rocksteadyboxingne.com/