Parkinson’s patients punch back

A Parkinson’s diagnosis is like a punch in the face. Joan Russo remembers the crushing feeling all too well. But instead of giving up and letting depression and inactivity give Parkinson’s the upper hand, Russo, a former high school gymnast and all around athlete, took her doctor’s advice.

“He told me you need to move, so I started to move,” she added.

That led her back to the gym, which she had kind of neglected most of her adult life, swimming, running and biking. Seeing the positive results, she says she wanted to shout it from the rooftops to other Parkinson’s sufferers – movement is power. After trying a number of workouts, she found that the boxer’s workout was most effective.

“[With] Parkinson’s we become rigid; we lose our balance,” she explained. “We slow our movements. Our coordination is off and in boxing you have to shift, punch fast. You have to know what the counts are, and that’s all the skills that we’re losing with Parkinson’s so we kind of force ourselves to make new pathways.”

This would be something from which other Parkinson’s patients could benefit, she thought. Enter the Light of Day Foundation, co-founded in 1998 by artist manager, Bob Benjamin, and concert promoter, Tony Pallagrosi, as a vehicle to raise money for research into Parkinson’s and related conditions – more than $3 million since its inception. Pallagrosi saw immediate benefits, not only physically, but socially.

“As you can imagine, if you have any kind of physical illness where your mobility and speech are compromised, getting out of the house is really an issue,” he said. “You don’t want to interact, and not only does this improve them physically, but improves their lives socially I think.”

Stephanie Barrett, of Forked River, said hitting the heavy bag releases a lot of aggravation and pent up energy.

“[It’s also about] the people because you get to talk about your symptoms, and they actually know what’s going on,” she said. “Like, you can talk to your family about it but they’re like ‘awww’ but they don’t know what’s going on, you know. You feel like a glacier.”

It’s a whole different reason for coming to the gym, explained Donna Borejko, the fitness director at Gold’s Gym.

“It would be great if someone came in and said, ‘Oh, I can tie my shoe better and quicker while standing on one foot.’ To me that’s even more rewarding than any of the other things I usually see. [like fitting into a dress] That’s nice, too,” she said.

They call the program Boxing for Bob. The first of these is being held at Gold’s Gym in Howell next month, where the hope is that the program will spread to other Gold’s Gyms in New Jersey, and eventually around the country.

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