• Photo: Three Rock Steady Boxing students punching individual bags.

Boxing Up Parkinson's Disease Symptoms at the Cambridge YMCA

Boxing Up Parkinson's Disease Symptoms at the Cambridge YMCA

Gloves on! Punching bags ready! Rock Steady Boxing changes the lives of people with Parkinson's Disease.

It can start with a slight tremor, or mere changes in posture or walking. But you can still do what you’ve loved and needed to do, with relative ease. (A whisper in the mind: “Nothing is wrong.”) Then it moves on, to increasing tremor, muscle rigidity, and some challenges in walking. (A whisper in the mind: “I don’t think anything’s wrong.”) It’s getting harder, and the loss of confidence, ease, and enjoyable activities are beginning to mount. (A whisper in the mind: “This is happening.”) This is no easy thing. Balance is lost, movements are challenging. And there’s the fear of falling. Such a dreaded thing, falling down, getting hurt. Perhaps seriously. The dread begins to mount, sometimes paired with despair. Life becomes more limited and limiting. Loss of social time with more active friends. Social withdrawal can set in, not just because of physical limitations, but because of what’s happening in the brain itself – the destruction of dopamine, which can affect one’s motivation. This is troubling. This comes in waves and advances. This is not how life was supposed to be. This is unfair. “This is frightening.” This is Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinson’s Disease (aka, Parkinson’s) affects roughly one of every three hundred people, meaning we can guess that, here in Cambridge, around 300 folks are carrying around this life challenge. These carriers are our neighbors, our friends, our family, ourselves. With life becoming more and more limited, fearing the future, it’s easy to imagine not getting up and going out as much, if at all.

So here’s encouraging folks with Parkinson’s to get out! And go! Get out and go to Rock Steady Boxing! Rock Steady Boxing (RSB), headquartered in Indianapolis, has programs all over the country, with one right here in Cambridge at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Central Square. The YMCA’s Rock Steady Boxing program was founded and is administered by Albert ("Al") Latullippe, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Rock Steady Boxing Coach. (He teaches the class with the assistance of YMCA Personal Trainer and Health Coach Matthew Mahoney.)

Al studied exercise among special populations, learned about Rock Steady Boxing, and, basically, fell full-on in Exercise-Love with it. And for good reason. Rock Steady Boxing works. It lessens many of Parkinson’s most troubling symptoms, increases confidence, and fortifies eye-hand coordination.

Al is clear that Rock Steady Boxing is not a miracle that descends on the student. It requires work. He describes Rock Steady Boxing as “forced exercise,” in which the student is pushed past what is easy and comfortable, past where they’d normally stop. “We bend them but don’t break them,” Al emphasizes, “And the students get breaks during class to rest and recover.” “The workout is strenuous, but I always feel good when I'm there,” says Julia Huestis, a dedicated and enthusiastic student of Rock Steady Boxing.

RSB is a non-contact process, meaning the students do not punch each other, (good grief), or their coach, for that matter. They punch bags and suchlike boxing items, with their hands gloved or padded for protection. They do upper and lower body strengthening as well. As a woman,” Julia Huestis notes, “Strengthening my upper body is empowering.”

RSB works on balance, mental focus, stamina, all to maintain an active life when one has Parkinson’s. The majority of RSB students see their symptoms ease, or, they at least maintain the functionality they currently have. With improvement or maintaining what one has, anxiety is eased. That foundation, together with addressing a major fear for folks with Parkinson’s – that of losing balance, falling, and getting seriously injured – allows RSB students to enter and hold onto confidence and well-being.

“So many people are afraid to leave their homes for fear of falling. That stress is terrible for people. We teach them, if they fall, here’s the right way to do it. There’s a way to fall so they land better and don’t get hurt,” notes Al. And, protected by that in-the-body confidence, something changes for RSB students, beyond the changes students create in their bodies.

“Rocky Steady Boxing changes lives” says Al, with all humility. I could hear, in his humble style, a clear commitment, and earnest, authentic confidence in Rock Steady Boxing. It does what it’s supposed to do, and Al sincerely seems honored and grateful to be helping people with Parkinson’s in such a practical way. So many of us in this world wish we could do something to ease people’s suffering, to bring peace to people’s hearts. Rock Steady Boxing does just that. And Al appreciates that opportunity. He enjoys supporting people with Parkinson’s to develop a new way of functioning in the world, in their lives: “Rock Steady Boxing is a lifestyle,” Al Latullippe emphasizes. “It’s an attitude as much as it is a physical work out. It's an attitude towards the struggle with Parkinson's, and more.”

[Caption for photo below : Group photo of Rock Steady Boxing]:

“There’s something about the classes, where we all show our struggles. We all have something that’s hard. It’s really nice to be real. We all get very close. We check in with each other. Rock Steady Boxing is not meant to be a support group, but I feel like it is,” Julia Huestis notes, brimming with appreciation. “And Al is very approachable. You can always tell him if there’s a problem.”

The coaches’ openness and attunement to what the students are experiencing – both directly in the class and in their lives lived with Parkinson’s – is a significant factor in the success of Rock Steady Boxing: There is a deep trust in the process, mutual respect among all involved. And a solid encouragement to learn new ways of addressing one’s challenges. Says Julia Huestis, “Al teaches us to fight for ourselves in a different way.”

Rock Steady Boxing classes for people with Parkinson's Disease meet weekly on Mondays at the YMCA. Most students enroll, give the class a try, and then keep on going with it, series after series.

So spread the fighting spirit of Rock Steady Boxing to folks you know who carry Parkinson’s. Or give it a try yourself if you have Parkinson’s. You’ll meet a knowledgeable, comforting, competent coaches in Al Latullippe and Matthew Mahoney. You’ll meet other Parkinson’s fighters, develop your strength, balance, and confidence. You'll learn how to fall the right way. And you will all celebrate each others’ successes as you move along.

(Author's note: RSB's Al Latullippe extends much gratitude to both assistant coach Matthew Mahoney and Nancy O’Brien, President and CEO of the YMCA-Cambridge, for the support and physical resources provided to Rock Steady Boxing.)