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Fighting back

Parkinson’s patients are throwing punches at the disease in the Rock Steady Boxing program that builds strength, eases movement and boosts confidence for those determined to stay active.

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People living with Parkinson’s disease are packing punches as part of the Rock Steady Boxing program at Cape Fear Valley HealthPlex.
Launched in December and held three times a week, the nationally known program helps Parkinson’s patients with balance, movement, tremors and even voice activation. Since its launch, participation has tripled, and results are already being seen, according to patients and their doctors.
Martha Vallery, 68, was one of the first to join the boxing program after her initial diagnosis.
At first, she barely recognized the symptoms, although she started to suspect something was amiss when her handwriting began to look cramped.
“I used to have good handwriting, and it started almost disappearing. It became illegible,” says Vallery.
She noticed that despite being active and an avid runner, she was having trouble getting up and down.
“I’ve been active my whole life and have always exercised,” says Vallery. “It was a change in my normal routine to not be able to get up from sitting like I always had.”
When she noticed some drooling, she took her concerns to her primary care physician and was referred to Hardik Doshi, M.D., a neurologist at Cape Fear Valley Health.
In November, Doshi diagnosed her with Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive condition that attacks the part of the brain that helps control and coordinate body movement and speech.
“When he diagnosed me with Parkinson’s disease, my first thought was, ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen now?’ I was fearful and had such a negative impression. But Dr. Doshi put my mind at ease. He said there are medications, therapies and a lot of things that could be done to handle it all,” Vallery says.
Vallery, who lives with her husband, Ray, and has two adult children, was diagnosed just as the health system was rolling out the boxing ring.
“Timing was everything. I was there at the beginning of the program, just at the right moment,” says Vallery.
For a while, she was the only woman in the program.
More than 43,000 patients are training in 871 Rock Steady Boxing programs around the world. The program uses noncombat techniques to improve strength and agility and can also help slow progression of Parkinson’s through endurance-based repetitious movements, according to proponents.
The fitness routine was established at Cape Fear Valley HealthPlex through a substantial donation to the Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation by Fayetteville residents Tony and Ann Cimaglia.
Tony Cimaglia, who also has Parkinson’s, was among the first patients to sign up.
Mandez Foy, the fitness and aerobics lead at Healthplex, says the program combines all the best exercises in a fun way while also allowing participants to increase and improve their movement, posture and gait.
The program also can help improve finger dexterity for buttoning buttons, lacing shoes and picking up small objects.
“This class is high-energy. It’s designed so that people in all stages of Parkinson’s can participate,” Foy says. “It’s the group environment that makes it. It’s tough but fun for everyone.”
Vallery agrees that the class is both a challenge and a lot of fun.
“Music is on. We have a great time, and we leave huffing and puffing. It can be hard and a definite challenge,” she says. “It’s always a good workout, though. Every time.”
Foy says therapy workers encourage the boxers to yell or scream every time they throw a punch.
“As Parkinson’s develops, they can lose their voice or their ability to speak. We use voice activation to help with that,” he says.
Vallery says patients are encouraged to exert themselves.
“We yell, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,’ and if we don’t make enough noise, staff says, ‘We can’t hear you!’ and we have to get louder.”
Using boxing gloves and punching bags, participants are empowered to “fight back” against the disease.
“We sometimes fight Foy using boxing gloves but mostly use boxing bags hung from the ceiling,” says Vallery. “It’s definitely harder than it looks, but it’s great because it helps with stress too.”
Vallery, who as a staff psychologist at Cape Fear Valley Health worked with spinal cord patients in rehabilitation, says stress relief and social contact are other positive facets of the program.
“We encourage each other. We help each other. We scream for one another, cheerlead for each other. It’s a support class because we really get to know one another and want to check to see how everyone is doing,” she says.
Foy says the program builds confidence.
“Our participants are getting out, they are doing things and they feel like they can do more,” he says.
Foy says there is room in the class for anyone who might want to participate.
“We can host up to 40 in a class and can add classes as interest grows. This program works, and we are seeing major improvements in our athletes,” Foy says. “One of our boxers was using a walker when she first started and now no longer uses one, even at home.”
Anyone diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease can call Foy’s office at 910-615-7496 to schedule an assessment for the program.
Cape Fear Valley HealthPlex is at 1930 Skibo Road.