As many as 1 million people live with Parkinson’s disease in America. Now, a new exercise program is energizing patients diagnosed with the movement disorder and renewing hope among patients.
It’s an unconventional form of therapy that’s making fighters out of patients at an Albany gym where the coaches never go easy.
“As long as you can stand up, I can teach you how to box,” gym owner Andy Schott explained.
Just like he taught 78-year-old Frank DiDonato.
“Last time I had boxing gloves on I was probably 13 years old,” DiDonato said.
From the oldest to the youngest at age 40, everyone at the gym is fighting the same battle.
“About a year and a half ago, I noticed his gait wasn’t too great,” DiDonato’s wife, Sandra, said.
It’s only after the gloves come off you start to see the signs of Parkinson’s disease.
“When I walk, it’s not as good anymore,” DiDonato added. “I have aches and pains when I wake up in the morning.”
As time goes on his wife knows it’ll get worse.
“It’s a tough thing to go through,” she said fighting back tears.
“Parkinson’s will take something away from you slowly but surely,” Mark Burek, a Parkinson’s patient and founder of the class, said.
Burek was diagnosed with the disorder 10 years ago, so he began fighting back against Parkinson’s at Schott’s Boxing.
“You realize you’re not alone fighting this disease,” he said. “You look to the right or left of you and somebody is going through the same thing.”
He made it look easy as he punched his way through the balloon bag to the heavy bag and then onto the coaches.
“You really gotta reach down deep and dig it out,” he said.
“There’s something special about boxing,” Schott explained. “Coordination, timing — you have to use every part of your mind and body to field punches properly. It’s a real challenge to the brain.”
Each station is designed to practice footwork, improve balance and get the heart pumping.
“When he’s here, he forgets about what’s going on,” Sandra reflected.
“We are holding on to our quality of life,” Burek added.
However, he knows boxing isn’t a cure.
“We can’t cure Parkinson’s, but we can keep it at bay,” Burek said.
Doctors seem to be on board. Dr. Eric Molho is a neurologist at Albany Medical Center.
“It’s beneficial for their symptoms; we know that,” he said.
Research shows there are measureable improvements in balance and walking.
“There’s some evidence that exercise can change how the brain functions,” Dr. Molho said. “It can remodel brain connections a little bit.”
And possibly even slowing the progression of the disease.
That’s why when the gloves are on DiDonato gets a bounce in his step. He never thought he’d be boxing at 78.
“When I watch him punch, it’s hard to believe,” Sandra said. “Because he’s different at home than he is here.”
DiDonato has become a fighter knocking out Parkinson’s one punch at a time.
The Fighting Parkinson’s class at Schott’s Boxing has been going on for a little more than a year. Doctors have talked with the coaches to make sure it’s low impact and non-contact.
A 5K benefit will be held on Sunday, April 23 at the Corning Preserve to benefit Parkinson’s research. Call (518) 428-0056 for more information.