Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox may be the most famous folks with Parkinson’s disease. However, more than 10 million ordinary people, from friends to neighbors, suffer from the disorder.
Through medication and activity, many have found relief from their condition. Some, though, are combating the illness in an unexpected way. They have discovered boxing.
“Boxing is my first therapy. Work is No. 2,” said Don Heberle.
The Bethel Park resident was diagnosed with the disease 10 years ago.
Now 77, he remains employed as a sales manager for Burns Equipment Company. Before COVID-19 forced him to work from home, Heberle commuted to Warrendale three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Heberle drives to Carnegie and works out at Wolfpack Boxing Club. From 10 to 11:15 a.m., he and others afflicted with Parkinson’s disease perform a rigorous routine featuring a variety of punching bags and consisting of calisthenics, stretching exercises and cardio work.
“It’s tiring,” Heberle said. “I’m spent when I’m finished but I prefer it that way. If I don’t do this, I am a mess. My muscle strength would be completely gone.”
Ralph DeLucia agreed. The 65-year-old Finleyville resident was diagnosed with the disease seven years ago.
“It’s always hard, especially in the summer. There’s no air conditioning in here. This is a boxing gym,” he emphasized. “I enjoy this though. I like to be pushed. Boxing has really helped me a lot.”
According to Dr. Susan Baser, Parkinson’s patients benefit significantly from programs patterned after Rock Steady Boxing.
The nonprofit organization was founded in Indiana in 2006 through a friendship between Scott Newman, who had been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at age 40, and Vince Perez. In addition to the Wolfpack Boxing Club in Carnegie, Fit 4 Boxing Clubs in Allison Park and Murrysville offer classes devoted explicitly to Parkinson’s patients.
“(Boxing) is a wonderful activity for patients and these programs are amazing,” Baser said.
“It’s kind of multifactorial as far as what it helps.”
First, obviously, is the impact of the physical activity, said Baser. Programs are tailored for patients; however, the focus is upon building confidence as well as strength. Initially, most workouts started with a session where all the patients converse.
“It’s kind of a build-in speech therapy,” Dr. Baser said. “A lot of patients tend to quit talking. They mumble and you can’t understand them. But this brings them out of their shells and gets them more comfortable with socializing and more confidence in their speaking.”
Second is the exercise. The actual boxing builds up core strength as well as coordination and balance. Next is the socialization.
“Boxing is phenomenal,” Baser said. “The socialization and the actual physical build up of your core strength, balance and coordination is a very positive thing. It gives them a lot of confidence as well as physical effects of the boxing.”
When Heberle and DeLucia attended classes at Wolfpack Boxing Club, both admitted they were apprehensive. In time, they experienced progress.
“I was very anxious the first time I came down here because I didn’t know what to expect,” Heberle said. “The group was very welcoming. It’s a great workout. I’ve noticed that there is a significant difference in my walk and my gait and my strength. Everything that I do. It does wonders for you.”
Aside from helping his balance and flexibility, DeLucia benefited most psychologically. Until he started boxing, he had not met anybody else with Parkinson’s.
“When I came to this class, it was a huge emotional lift to meet all these people,” said DeLucia. “I had gone six years without meeting anybody. Here, I realized that I wasn’t alone. It’s been helpful to me to work with people who have issues.”
DeLucia also noted that his classmates shared another commonality. Everybody works so hard.
The drill sergeantAngela Murray puts Parkinson’s patients through their paces. She pushes them gently but forcefully. The fitness trainer joined the Wolfpack gym a few years ago after moving back to Pittsburgh from Florida. The New Castle native has been a certified instructor since October.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to see people who are battling this progressive disease, come in here every day, day in and day out, working their butts off, especially in the summer time in the heat and the humidity,” she said. “It’s impressive and truly humbling.”
While the gym has 400 members, between 25 to 30 Parkinson’s patients attend classes regularly. The average age is 70, but there are patients as young as 50 and well over 80.
Workouts start with a warm-up “to get the blood flowing” and stretches designed for mobility and balance. After shadowboxing, participants perform 20 pushups, according to their abilities. In between calisthenics and cardio work, the athletes actually box. They jab foam dummies and a variety of punching bags. There’s more boxing with added combinations and increased complexity, not to mention another round of calisthenics before the 95-minute session ends with a succession of stretching and cool-down exercises.
“Everything is about mobility, strength and balance as well as working on spatial awareness,” explained Murray. “There’s work on boxing technique but not just for power and endurance but it helps the mind-body connection. The more complex the drills, the more it taxes the brain.”
In addition to spacial awareness and recognition, drills focus on reactions. According to Murray, the double-end bags are great for that.
“It helps for them to handle something that is moving at them,” she said.
Pandemic pauseThe coronavirus pandemic hindered progress. When COVID-19 hit the region, the gym was forced to close. The program was suspended for three months, causing panicked phone calls. Since the gym reopened, attendance has been slow to return to normal because some of the Parkinson’s patients are grandparents or have spouses with a medical condition.
“It’s a delicate balance and we are taking precautions as best we can to help,” said Murray. “It’s definitely been a challenge. We had patients calling, begging ‘please open the gym, my symptoms are progressing. My tremors are getting worse. I’m having trouble with my gait.’ We are trying to protect them from COVID, but they are more worried about keeping their disease from progressing because this is what’s life or death for them.”
When the gym reopened, Murray said she did see a “decline” in her students. Their voices were softer with less projection. Tremors were worse. There was a lot more foot shuffling.
Heberle noticed he has “slowed down” a bit. To work out at home takes “discipline” he does not possess.
“You have to be or the disease will take over and incapacitate you,” he said.
Within a few weeks of their return, Murray has seen a marked improvement in her students. She said the brief layoff has allowed her to see how crucial and how beneficial the program is.
“It’s quite amazing,” she said.
Murray also added that she notices the progression of the disease slows when patients attend consistently.
“You can see a decline in some of their symptoms. You would start to see their bodies responding more readily and more quickly to what their mind was telling them to do. Their balance, their agility was improving. Their spacial recognition. Even their personalities and their voices. They were able to speak louder and more confidently.”
Gainful visits David Pentico, 78, and Katie Garland, 63, are confident they gain something from their visits to the Wolfpack Boxing Club.
Pentico lived in Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair before moving into Providence Point in Scott Township. Though diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly four years ago, he said he is more concerned with his macular degeneration. His mother, who suffered from both conditions, lived into her 90s.
“If you look at the list of potential problems with Parkinson’s, I have at least six or seven of the 10 that usually show up. What I don’t have is the shakes. In my case it mostly affects my memory. I have a mind like a sieve,” he said.
Pentico did remember that he wasn’t “particularly athletic” in his youth, nor had he been involved in any kind of boxing or wrestling. He had “absolutely no interest” in anything like that but decided to try boxing for one simple reason.
“It probably sounds ridiculous, but it’s fun,” he enthused. “I enjoy it.
“I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t because there are other forms of exercise,” Pentico continued. “I know it is promoting better quality of life than sitting around doing nothing, which probably is what I would be doing. So it’s keeps me involved. I think it is doing good for me physically.”
Garland knows it’s better than being confined. When the Bethel Park resident was diagnosed last year with Atypical Parkinsonism, which is sometimes called Parkinson’s Plus, she could barely get out of bed without assistance. She had some symptoms, but the medication she had been taking for more than 18 months provided little relief.
“I was in so much pain,” she said.
Garland described herself as “a very active” person. She would walk with her husband, Bob, or use the cross trainer in the basement workout room. After earning her engineering degree from Michigan State, she and her husband reared four children, Aubrey, Eric, Peter and Andrew, ranging in ages from 19 to 38.
When her physician recommended Rock Steady Boxing, Garland was hooked. Not only does she take the three-day-a-week course at Wolfpack Boxing Club, but she also attends the basics class on Mondays and Fridays. She also goes to a movement clinic that specifically treats her condition.
“Everything that Parkinson’s does to you, this helps us. From the strengthening, the balance, the cognitive skills, the stretches,” she said. “It’s incredible. It has changed my life.”
By spreading the word regarding the benefits of boxing, Garland hopes other lives will be changed. She endorses the Wolfpack Boxing Club.
“When you get a diagnosis like this, you roll with the punches,” she said. “That’s the way it is.
“I would absolutely recommend this place. The energy. The excitement. The help. The understanding,” she listed. “They are so encouraging.”
Garland is encouraged by her progress.
“I’m not sure how it affects the brain but I know what I have been doing here slows how it affects my body. If I/we don’t do this, we’ll roast and that will be it. We’ve got to keep moving.”
Movement, rather than research, is DeLucia’s recommendation as well. When he was diagnosed seven years ago, he searched the symptoms and discovered there are worse things than Parkinson’s disease. So it was “almost a little bit of relief” to learn his condition because he said it could have been Lou Gehrig’s disease or multiple sclerosis.
“If you have just been diagnosed, you should get started doing something. Some type of exercise as soon as possible,” he advised. “Whatever suits you. It could be boxing. It could be dancing. Could be Tai Chai. They are all good.
“For me, this works well. It’s not exercise for the sake of exercise, they are actually trying to teach you how to box. That works for me. So I come. You have to find something that you are going to do and stick with.”
Keep movingFor 54 years, Heberle has stuck with his wife, Rita. Together they had three children, Don, 53, Doug, 51, and Dan, 50, who live in McMurray, Greensboro and Cleveland, respectively. For 20 years, he also golfed in a couples league. Now he just joins them for a meal at their favorite restaurants, the Juniper Grill or Capstone.
“It’s a challenge to golf,” he said. “I can’t do it anymore because I tire and don’t have the mobility or equilibrium.
“For 70 years, I danced and golfed and sang my way through a great life. Now, I don’t dance or sing. It’s different now. I respect this disease but boxing is helping me beat it. I’m maintaining. Not getting worse,” he said of his condition.
For four years, Heberle has boxed. The only thing that slowed him down was the hiatus from the gym because of COVID-19 and back surgery. The tremors, which led to his diagnosis, have abated, mainly because of medication, but his strength and balance have improved.
When he looks around the gym, Heberle realizes how blessed he is. He says that others have troubles worse than he does.
“There’s no pity party going on here. God doesn’t give us things we can’t handle. Everybody is working hard to manage,” he said.
As boxing manages his disease, Heberle hopes to reach the ripe, old age of 95. He doesn’t expect his obituary to read “died from Parkinson’s disease.”
“You rarely see that,” he said. “It can be from complications. But I expect to make it to a nice age and get there relatively mobile and able.”
That is why he champions boxing as an effective therapy. In fact, he has already recommended it to several people.
“It will keep the body moving and mind active.” He added, “You also get to know other people who have it and realize that you are not alone.”
Baser concurred. She said a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis is “not a death sentence” and that the right balance of medicine and exercise is the weapon to fight the malady.
“I always encourage exercise,” she said. “The bottom line is (boxing) can really make a difference for Parkinson’s patients.”