Parkinson’s disease sufferers are fighting back against their disease with a spirited flurry of jabs and crosses, and one-two combinations.
Pulse Fitness in Baraboo recently began offering a boxing program for seniors with Parkinson’s disease. Twice each week, they tape up their hands, lace up their gloves and attack a workout designed to combat their condition.
Although the program only is a few weeks old, Linda Gabel said she already has seen her husband Gary’s attitude and outlook improve. She’s one of several spouses who serve as “corner men,” helping their beloved boxers put on their gear and delivering water during breaks.
“It can’t take away the Parkinson’s,” she said, “but it makes you feel you can fight back.”
The 11 boxers enrolled in the program don’t strike each other. They take out their aggression on a series of bags in a circuit designed to improve balance, motor skills and flexibility.
Parkinson’s disease affects 1 million people in the U.S. The progressive disease kills dopamine-producing cells in the part of the brain that affects movement. This can cause tremors, stiffness and loss of balance, as well as mental fogginess and depression. Medication can control symptoms, but there’s no cure.
Exercise is considered the next best thing. Because boxing requires hand-eye coordination, balance and power, it’s just the type of exercise Parkinson’s sufferers need. Programs like the one offered at Pulse Fitness are springing up around the country.
Gary Gabel said working out with a group creates camaraderie and accountability. “I wouldn’t do this on my own,” he said. “I need motivation. (Green) is a good motivator, a good encourager.”
Club member and Parkinson’s sufferer John Taapken brought the concept, known nationally as Rock Steady Boxing, to Pulse Fitness co-owner Brandon Green several months ago. Green didn’t get on board until his research found boxing training has great – and immediate – benefits for people with Parkinson’s disease.
“Seeing the amount of change in people’s lives … it was right up our alley,” Green said.
The Baraboo Area Parkinson’s Support Group joined in the effort, referring people to the program and raising money. Participants’ $50 monthly fee won’t cover the program’s entire cost.
Geri Schoenoff is working to raise money for the program through her role as a parish nurse. The First Congregational United Church of Christ started a parish nurse program as an outreach ministry, and went on to form the local Parkinson’s support group. Because the boxing program is uplifting participants’ spirits, Schoenoff sees God at work in every punch. “It’s just spiritual,” she said.
Taking a swing
Participants range from a trained boxer to people who’ve never laced up gloves. Some walk from station to station, while others punch from chairs.
“My No. 1 rule is everybody works at their own level,” said Green, who trains the boxers alongside Elizabeth Lawton.
Club members no doubt wonder what’s happening every Tuesday and Thursday morning, as a silver-haired pack of pugs takes over the gym and starts shouting. Vocalizing with every punch – “One-two, one two!” – is another way to keep the body and brain connected. From the sidelines, the “corner men” smile proudly.
“Not only are we helping them, we’re helping their spouses,” Green said. “This is something we’re going to do for a very long time.”
For the boxers, there’s something cathartic in taking a swing at a disease that is robbing them of their balance and their independence. They can’t knock out Parkinson’s, but they’re excited about getting back some of what has been lost.
“I think the thing you lose most is hope,” Linda Gabel said.
In recent weeks she has seen her husband rediscover that hope – and develop a mean one-two combination.
“It’s inspirational,” Gary Gabel said.