Toni and Joe Dalessandris of Alpharetta like to stay active, despite her diagnosis this year of Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder that in time will make it more difficult for her to regulate body movements and emotions.
The Dalessandrises do a lot of hiking and biking and recently joined a boxing class for those in the early stages of the disease. Twice weekly, Toni and Joe, who participates as the supporting spouse, put on their boxing gloves and take out their frustrations on 100-pound hanging bags during the rigorous workout at Delgado Boxing Gym in Sandy Springs. The class is tailor-made for people with Parkinson’s, but it’s certainly not for cream puffs.
After an hour-plus afternoon session, Toni, sweaty and tired, explains why she’s there: “Because it kicks my butt.”
Rigorous workouts? Bring them on, the harder the better, say those with Parkinson’s and their advocates.
Researchers have discovered that aggressive and varied exercises are the best ways to challenge the brain and enhance the quality of life for those with the disease — and the regimen may even slow its progression, explains Larry Kahn, CEO of PD Gladiators, a nonprofit organization in metro Atlanta promoting vigorous community exercise classes and other support for people with Parkinson’s.
The Gladiators schedule a network of low-cost group fitness classes through the Metro Atlanta YMCA and independent providers like Paul Delgado’s boxing gym. In addition to boxing, there are classes in dance, Tai Chi, Zumba, yoga and general fitness at various sites in the metro area. Specific classes, locations and fees can be found on their website: pdgladiators.org
“Most people don’t think people with Parkinson’s can or should box,” says Kahn, who has Parkinson’s himself and participates in the boxing classes for those who are in the early stages of the disease. He said the drills a boxer goes through work on all the things that Parkinson’s robs the body of: balance, agility and the ability to make your muscles do what you want them to do. Having to remember a sequence of hits helps the mind-body connection, which creates more brain circuits, he said.
“It definitely improves the quality of life, and that goes for people who are just diagnosed and those who are in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s,” Kahn said.
Delgado and his staff have Parkinson’s-specific training and understand the physical challenges of their clients. Chairs are used during warm-ups to prevent falls. Students in classes for advanced-stage Parkinson’s have a greater fall risk, so trainers use guide belts around each participant’s waist for extra support. Physical therapists volunteer their time to keep the student-to-trainer ratio as low as possible.
While the early-stage boxing classes have been around for a few years, sessions for those in advanced stages just started in July. Kahn said there was a demand for these classes, and the workouts have helped improve daily function and provided an added social benefit. “They’re with other people they can feel comfortable with,” he said. “And the boxing trainers are just spectacular with these advanced-stage students.”
While the pace is a little slower, the workout requirements aren’t much different. They still sprint around the gym, do the calisthenics and punching exercises. “We push them just as hard,” Delgado said.
With Parkinson’s, the brain connection to major extremities starts to slow down, and gets slower as the disease progresses, Delgado explains.
To counter-punch that reality, Delgado and his trainers never use a set workout routine: They’re always changing it up. They don’t want movements to become memorized, but rather that participants have to think, then act – quickly.
It’s also important to keep it fun, Delgado says. “If it’s not fun people won’t want to do it.”
For 78-year-old Merritt Alexander of Brookhaven, the “fun” of such a rigorous boxing workout is what makes him feel alive. “I really get in to it,” he said of the nonstop punching and moving. “When I’m out there I just want to yell out. Arrrgggg.”
Works with independent fitness instructors and the YMCA of Metro Atlanta to offer weekly, low-cost group exercise classes adapted for people with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers.
PD Gladiators Boxing Training for Parkinson’s disease stages 1 and 2
Meets: 12-1:15 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays; 6:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays.
PD Gladiators Boxing Training for Parkinson’s disease stages 3 and 4
Meets: 1:30-2:30 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays
Delgado Boxing Gym, 6010-C Sandy Springs Circle, Sandy Springs, 30328. (In the Centre Court shopping plaza at Sandy Springs Circle and Hammond Drive)
For more information on scheduling, prices: pdgladiators.org
Other fitness classes for people with Parkinson’s disease
• Ageless Grace: Exercises for the body and mind. Meets in Decatur/Druid Hills, Johns Creek, Brookhaven/Buckhead/Vinings.
• Dance for Parkinson’s. Meets in Cumming, Newnan.
• General Fitness Classes for Parkinson’s Disease. Meets in Smyrna, Tucker, Decatur, Marietta.
• Tai Chi for Parkinson’s Disease. Meets in Decatur, East Cobb, Morningside, Snellville.
• Yoga for Parkinson’s Disease. Meets in East Cobb, Suwanee. Home services available in Forsyth, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.
• Zumba Gold for Parkinson’s Disease. Meets in Dunwody.
For class schedules, registration and fee information see http://pdgladiators.org/metro-atla