An estimated 1 million Americans are living with Parkinson’s disease, with 60,000 new diagnoses every year, 13,000 of them here in Atlanta. Many famous people have PD, including actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease (YOPD) at age 29.
So common is PD that most of us have known someone with it.
I watched it destroy my former father-in-law — who before PD was a healthy, confident small-business owner — physically, mentally and emotionally. It also wreaked havoc on his brokenhearted wife, who regretfully sent him to a nursing home when she could no longer help him get out of a chair.
That was 20 years ago. There was and still is no cure for Parkinson’s, but if my father-in-law were alive today, he would have the hope of slowing the progression of his disease.
That hope is boxing. And one of the leaders in the Parkinson’s boxing movement, Boxing for Parkinson’s, is headquartered in Sandy Springs. An all-volunteer organization sponsored by the nonprofit Livramento Delgado Boxing Foundation (LDBF), it moved in September to its own 4,700-square-foot, state-of-the-art wellness center and is flourishing in the midst of one of the worst years any of us can remember.
Recently, LDBF Chairman Denise Formisano, who has not only PD but also multiple sclerosis, invited me to attend a boxing class with my contact Ellen Bookman, the LDBF communications director.
But why boxing? Because it naturally incorporates elements that can alleviate PD symptoms: footwork, balance, agility, movement in all planes, hand-eye coordination, strength, endurance, flexibility, posture, breathing, cognition, aerobic conditioning and camaraderie.
Upon my arrival, Tom Jeffrey, Denise’s husband and LDBF’s operations director, took my temperature and squirted sanitizer into my hands. He then fitted me with sanitized hand wraps over which he placed boxing gloves. One side of the room was lined with rows of hanging punching bags, which we vigorously attacked after a warm-up that included jumping jacks. The full-time volunteer instructor, a former Air Force boxing instructor now working on a Ph.D. in ancient history, began calling out patterns of numbers and random dates.
The numbers represented different boxing punches. If the instructor called out 1-2-4-3, the students had to know they meant jab, cross, rear hook and lead hook in that order and be able to repeat the pattern rapidly until the next sequence.
If that sounds easy, try not only instantaneously remembering what each number represents but also repeating the punches in sequence while jumping around. I’m a gym rat, but this class challenged me physically and mentally.
And the dates the instructor called out along with the punch numbers? They were all from ancient history, and the students had to be able to repeat them at the end of each sequence. They were then told why the date was significant. A boxing workout and ancient history lesson all in one class!
According to the Parkinson’s Outcome Project, the largest ever clinical study of Parkinson’s disease with more than 13,000 participants in five countries, exercise helps improve not only motor skills but also mood, depression and anxiety, all of which can affect people with PD more than motor impairments. The study also found that the sooner after a diagnosis people begin exercising, the more they can slow the decline in their quality of life.
Denise says she was lucky because her diagnosing doctor stressed the importance of exercise and she started exercising immediately. She was so impressed with the results that she gave up her full-time career in fashion design to become the full-time volunteer chair of LDBF.
Ellen Bookman, the LDBF communications director, wasn’t so lucky.
“I was diagnosed by a doctor who handed me a brochure and said, ‘Go boxing,’” said Ellen, who received her diagnosis of YOPD at the age of 52. “I came home, got on the internet and freaked out. Then I did nothing for a whole month but sit on the couch totally depressed.”
When she finally looked into boxing and called Denise, everything changed.
“Denise saved my life,” she said.
Ellen currently writes a blog about living with YOPD, called “Loving & Living,” and plans to launch a YOPD mentoring program in April.
Boxing for Parkinson’s offers a variety of classes, including yoga, six days a week. Its 200 members range in age from 38 to 92, with varying skills, including some who use wheelchairs. The address is 6667 Vernon Woods Drive, Suite A-16, in Sandy Springs. For information, call 404-747-3032 or go to boxingforparkinsons.org.