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In the Upper Valley, fighting back against Parkinson's with a one-two punch

A woman with white hair laughs as she practices jabbing a hanging punching bag during an exercise class.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Ann Harvey, center, works on her left jab during a recent Rock Steady Boxing class in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The class is taught by Samantha Duford, left, a physical therapist and cofounder of Upper Valley Programs for Parkinson's. Duford says research shows that boxing is great for people with movement disorders, because it promotes big arm movements and helps get the heart rate up.

Parkinson’s disease affects the nervous system. It muddles how the brain sends signals that coordinate movement. In Vermont, it's estimated that one out of a thousand people over age 55 have it.

It's a lifelong condition, and there's no cure. But research shows vigorous exercise — and even a punch or two — can help those with Parkinson's slow the disease.

At the Carter Community Building Association, a nonprofit recreational center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, Ann Harvey, Tom O'Quinn and Suzanne Serat are slipping on brightly-colored padded gloves.

They use them in a special boxing class designed to help people fight Parkinson’s.

An older man in a blue shirt puts on red boxing gloves for an exercise class.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Tom O'Quinn and Ann Harvey get ready for their weekly Rock Steady Boxing class at the Carter Community Building Association (CCBA) in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The course is based on a nationally-recognized curriculum to help people with Parkinson's and other movement disorders.

"There’s this thing in Parkinson's that says if you have a positive attitude, you’ll be better, and that’s true," Serat says. "But, you also need to acknowledge that it’s really hard, and you’re sort of losing your life basically drop by drop, and you’re mad about it."

"And," she gestures to the bright blue boxing gloves on her hand, "it feels good to just hit that bag as hard as you can.”

The group heads into a small gymnasium where punching bags hang from the ceiling.

“Alright guys, we’re going to get started," calls out instructor Samantha Duford. "So boxing stance, hands up. We’re going to throw a jab jab, hook hook, upper upper…Okay?  Let’s go…”

The dangling bags suddenly come to life, rocked by jabs from either side.

Two women sit on mats and stretch their legs during an exercise class.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Suzanne Serat and Betsy Warren warm up during a recent Rock Steady Boxing class. Both women have Parkinson's, and they say the class helps them feel better physically as well as emotionally. Warren joked that the chance to hit the punching bag as hard as possible was a nice bonus.

Betsy Warren of West Lebanon smiles behind her mask as she gives her bag a one-two combo.

Warren was diagnosed with Parkinson's in April 2021. Eight months later, she was diagnosed with cancer. She wrapped up chemo this summer, and is in remission. So now, she says, she’s back to focusing on her Parkinson’s.

This class, called Rock Steady Boxing, is based on a nationally-recognized curriculum, and Warren says it’s helping.

“Oh, it’s the greatest workout," Warren gushes, breathing hard during a break. "There’s like 23 different things that we do, and it’s all good for Parkinson's, from yelling, using our voice, to big movements."

She adds: "The thought of hitting something seemed like a good idea, especially early on when you’re trying to get used to a diagnosis.”

A man with gray hair stoops down to stretch his legs and back during an exercise class.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Jeff Demers of Sharon, Vermont was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's in 1997. He says for him, the hardest thing has been that his children have only known him with Parkinson's, and the illness has been stressful for him and his family. He says he has worked hard to stay active, and as his symptoms have worsened, the boxing class has helped with walking and movement. "I feel better now than I did two years ago, so that's a good thing," he says.

Parkinson’s disease affects how people move. It slows them down and can make people stoop and shuffle. Tremors are common. The disorder can also weaken a person’s voice, affect eyesight and balance, and can hamper fine motor skills, which can make everyday tasks like buttoning a shirt difficult.

More from Brave Little State: How can older Vermonters 'age in place'?

Physical therapist Samantha Duford is president and cofounder of Upper Valley Programs for Parkinson's. She says her 90-minute Rock Steady Boxing classes target all of those things.

A woman balances a ping pong ball in a spoon. Her face is set in a focused expression, and she's standing in a gym.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Donna Perisco reads through a brain teaser puzzle while balancing a ping pong ball in a plastic spoon. This was one of a number of activities in a recent Rock Steady Boxing class in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The course is aimed at helping people with Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders fight back and slow symptoms.

“We incorporate balance, coordination and dual-task walking," Duford says. "We really try to target deficits specific to Parkinson's in everything we do.” 

Boxing she says is great for big arm movements and getting heart rates up. But the class also includes yoga stretches, core strength training, brain teasers and hand-eye work. For instance, one of this afternoon's activities involves moving lettered clothes pins from one ribbon to another in alphabetical order while balancing on a cushion.

Suzanne Serat and others in the class say the benefits are immediate.

"Absolutely, when I came into class, I was having something called dyskinesia, which is a random movement and side effect from the medication," Serat says. "And because of doing this, it stopped. So this leg is now still.”

A photo showing the backs of two women stand with one foot on a cushion against a wall while working with at a desk space.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Suzanne Serat, left, and Sherri Sytsma move clothespins from one piece of rope to another in alphabetical order. The exercise was part of a recent Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's can worsen hand-eye coordination ,and experts say activities like this can help slow that down.

That's not uncommon. Dr. Jim Boyd is director of the Binter Center for Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders at the University of Vermont. He says that while intense activity won’t stop symptoms, it can slow them down and make them go away temporarily. It’s why he says classes like this are so important.

"As a practicing neurologist for nearly 20 years now, you do see a distinct difference between those who become engaged in physical activity early in their course, and develop good habits of exercise, to those that do not," he says.

If boxing’s not your thing, Boyd says there are dance classes, Tai chi and other workouts specifically designed for people with movement disorders that can help. And since COVID, many are now offered virtually.

Gary Martin lives in Jonesville, Vermont, and was diagnosed with a movement disorder similar to Parkinson’s 10 years ago. Martin takes a regular dance class for people with Parkinson’s taught by his wife Sara McMahon. He also does a specialized workout called Push Back several times a week.

While he’s now using a walker and wheelchair more often, he says the weekly classes have helped his balance, strength and outlook.

"The tendency for most people with Parkinson's [is] to just hang back and not become involved in life," Martin says. "And this has really been helpful in that regard.”

Eleven people stand in a closing circle in a studio with wooden floor after an exercise class.
Nina Keck
/
Vermont Public
Sherri Sytsma waves goodbye to classmates in the Friday afternooon Rock Steady Boxing Class in Lebanon. Sytsma, who has Parkinson's, told the group she was moving to Michigan to live with family, and this would be her last time attending. Many of the participants said the camaraderie and bonds made in the course are especially helpful in combating the disease.

Back at the Rock Steady Boxing class, the group wraps up its weekly workout in a circle.

Earnest Schori says he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2018, and besides boxing, he does Tai chi and core strength training. The physical outlet helps, he says, but so does the camaraderie.

"To know that I'm not alone," Schori says, is important.

Suzanne Serat nods. The workouts feel great, but she says the teasing and support that are part of every class — the catching up with each other, the understanding and honesty — may be even more important.

"You don’t have to explain anything. There's none of you that needs to be embarrassed," Serat says. "I don’t know why, but there’s a shame that comes from having a chronic illness, one that shows, and there’s none of that when we’re all together."

Pointing to the clusters of others in the group who are chatting and laughing after class, she says: "You can just sort of sit there and say, 'It’s not a good day,' and they’ll go 'Yeah.' They get it.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck:

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