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Boxing program helps people find balance, relief from symptoms of Parkinson’s

  • Philomena Epaul of Westfield, left, and Paul Shoemaker of South Hadley do modified jumping jacks during their class. Instructor Chad Moir offers a variety of exercises and other activities aimed at improving participants’ quality of life. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chad Moir, left, coaches Elaine English of Amherst on technique. He says boxing helps Parkinson’s patients with balance and coordination. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Founder Chad Moir, left, assists Philomena Epaul of Westfield in putting on boxing gloves during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease at DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Eastworks. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Trainer Tricia Enright, right, assists Alice Phoenix of Ludlow in putting on boxing gloves during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease at DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Eastworks. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • George Desautels of Ludlow, left, Alice Phoenix of Ludlow, founder Chad Moir and Paul Shoemaker of South Hadley use pool noodles to keep a balloon off the ground during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson's disease at DopaFit Parkinson's Wellness Center in Eastworks. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Alice Phoenix of Ludlow takes a quick break from punching a bag during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease at DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Eastworks. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Alice Phoenix of Ludlow, center, leads the group in warming up during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease at DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Eastworks. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • David Simm of Westfield punches a bag during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease at DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Eastworks. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Paul Shoemaker of South Hadley punches a bag during a Rock Steady Boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease at DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Eastworks. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Alice Phoenix of Ludlow doesn’t let her wheelchair hold her back. The class is open to patients at various levels of Parkinson’s disease. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • George Dobiecki of Southampton gets ready for a boxing class at DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in the Eastworks building in Easthampton.



For The Recorder
Friday, November 03, 2017

Sally Ritchotte’s body moves to the rhythm of the song “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” as she throws a jab at the punching bag before her. Her hips are swaying and her confidence is obvious as she flashes a smile, but if you look at her closely, you’ll notice her movement is rigid. 

She has Parkinson’s disease — but she’s not letting the symptoms hold her back — not without a fight.

She is in a boxing class on a recent Tuesday morning in a rented studio in the Eastworks Building in Easthampton. On either side of her, there are about a dozen other people who are also trying to knock out the symptoms of Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease that can cause muscle rigidity and stiffness, in part by pummeling a punching bag. It’s a slow, and often cruel condition, that can leave people severely physically impaired and can lead to cognitive decline.

The people in this class at DopaFit, a Parkinson’s wellness center, are joining a wave of other Parkinson’s sufferers throughout the world who have discovered the power of boxing to ease symptoms and improve their quality of life. The class uses a method called Rock Steady Boxing, a program originated in Indiana, designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s.

“It always helps when I come here,” says Ritchotte, 71.

Since she started classes at the studio, a year and a half ago at the suggestion of her neurologist, the slight shuffling in her feet has decreased, she says. Ritchotte has found that the class loosens her body up and makes it easier for her to do chores around the house. Most of all, she says, the workouts boosts her spirits and give her energy. “I always feel better when I leave,” she says.

Evidence-based benefits

It’s widely known that any exercise can ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but boxing also tests balance and coordination, while giving sufferers an outlet for frustration, says Chad Moir, 33, the founder and owner of DopaFit. These boxers, however, are hitting only the heavy bags — not each other. Sometimes they will write down a symptom that is bothering them that day and tape it to the bag.

In addition to boxing, the class includes other exercises like skipping rope and squats. Since people with Parkinson’s often have trouble with their speech — slurring their words, for example — vocal training is incorporated, too. And they sometimes practice getting in and out of chairs. All these activities help participants with physical skills they might need to go out to socialize without feeling self-conscious, says Moir.

“It’s a fun way to combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” he says. “It’s exciting for the them to be able to tell their families that they are going to boxing for Parkinson’s —  not to therapy.”

Boxing’s benefits for these patients are backed up by research, says Moir. A 2011 study published in the journal of the American Physical Therapy Association looked at a sampling of Parkinson’s patients who participated in two to three 90-minute boxing training sessions a week for nine months. The researchers found that they showed both short-term and long-term improvements in balance and gait.

“It is all evidence based,” he says.

All ages, all stages

Caregivers sit in metal folding chairs to watch the workout. There are six classes here — each can accommodate 15 boxers —  every week, and all of them are well attended, says Moir. So far the studio has 45 members, both men and women of all ages. Some of the classes are for people who are early in the disease and still have full mobility. Others are tailored for people who have difficulty walking.

At the start of the class, several clients park their walkers at the door. Some people come in wheelchairs.

Long slim punching bags hang from brackets high on the wall on one side of the room.

Edward Corrigan, 73, who is pumping his gloved fists into one of the bag looks solid as a rock and steady on his feet, as he jabs.

This is a large improvement from when he came in for the first time a year and a half ago, says his wife Barbara Corrigan. He was newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was having difficulty keeping his balance, she says. Since attending class three times a week, he is in much better shape, she says. “It’s just been a wonderful experience for both of us.”

Barbara Corrigan learned about the course after reaching out for help through a Facebook group and Moir responded.

“Now this is his world,” she says of her husband. “He is just so excited about it.”

Ritchotte also loves the class. She started boxing for the first time not long after her diagnosis, which was also a year and a half ago. Now, she and her husband, Alan Ritchotte, travel from their home in Westfield once a week for the class.

When she walks into the studio, she slips her white, puffy boxing gloves on and quickly begins chatting and laughing with friends she’s made here.

“Look at the camaraderie,” Alan Ritchotte says. “It’s really good for her.”

Personal motivation

Moir started DopaFit three years ago while studying occupational therapy at the American International College in Springfield. His mother had died from Parkinson’s disease in her sleep at age 55 and he wanted a way to channel his anger about his mother’s early passing, he says.

He had read online about the Rock Steady Boxing program and traveled to Indiana for a two-day training session before opening his studio at Eastworks. His classes are sponsored in part by the American Parkinson’s Disease Association Massachusetts Chapter.

Rock Steady Boxing, was founded by Scott C. Newman, a former prosecutor in Indiana who developed Parkinson’s at age 40. After his diagnosis, he began doing high-intensity boxing workouts and found significant improvements in his agility and quality of life, according to the program’s website.

In a person with Parkinson’s, the brain forgets how to communicate with the muscles. Through boxing, Newman discovered, he was able to teach the brain to get the muscles to work more effectively.

“It’s exciting, it really is,” says Moir.

So far, he says, he has helped dozens of people take control of their symptoms, both through the classes and private boxing lessons in their homes. 

“Some things that we take for granted, like just getting on and off the couch is easier after they come here.”

The class, Moir says, also is a place where participants meet others who are coping with the same diagnosis.

Indeed, says Alan Ritchotte, it serves as a support group for some.

“It does build your spirits because you are there with a group,” Sally Ritchotte says. “... I’ve made a lot of good friends.”

How to connect

Boxing classes at DopaFit in the Eastworks Building in Easthampton are $20 per class or $100 for a month of unlimited classes.

For more information about the boxing class, visit: www.Mydopafit.com or
email cmoir@mydopafit.com