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Giving Parkinson’s a right hook

image2_1When Spence Enslein was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Jennifer, decided he wasn’t going down without a fight.

She has been his primary caretaker, and “number one pusher of him,” as she bluntly puts it ever since. So when she saw a special on CBS Sunday with Leslie Stahl about Stahl’s husband’s struggle with the disease, and how a program called Rock Steady Boxing had helped, she knew it was the program for him.

But the nearest place offering it was 30 miles away. “And if it’s a burden, it’s a deterrent,” says the energetic Enslein. So she decided she was going to bring the program to the Michael Ann Russell JCC in Miami, where she and Spencer are members. She approached the fitness staff, and the lay and professional leadership, who were interested. The program, however, would need funding.

“Give me a deadline,” was Enslein’s response. Through her own contributions and fundraising efforts, including a grant for $20,000 from the National Parkinson’s Foundation, Enslein was able to secure the program, which began in August, for the next two years. The funds pay for special equipment and instructor training at Rock Steady Boxing in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Dany Weil, health and wellness director at the MAR JCC and another instructor have been certified through the program, a nonprofit organization, founded in 2006, by Scott C. Newman, a former Marion County prosecutor in Indiana, following his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease. Rock Steady Boxing is the first non-contact boxing gym in the country dedicated to people with the disease.

The JCC partners with the local Herbert Kaye chapter of the foundation to promote the program, and has already gone from offering two sessions a week to adding another in November. In all, about 25 people per class attend the program, up from 11 total when the program began, Weil says, and they continue to assess three to four a week. And because of the fundraising, the JCC is able to offer the program for free.

image1Parkinson’s causes deficiencies in motion, flexibility, balance and eye-hand coordination, Weil notes. But “boxing addresses most of them.” One woman who began the program using a walker is already able to walk without it, he says.

The depression some patients endure because of the nature of the disease, they are with people in the same boat, and one pushes the other,” Weil says. The social component is a big plus, and the high-intensity, interval training using boxing bags, shadow boxing, obstacle courses, core training, squats and pushups is geared as much to fun and variety as it is toward improving their movement.

“Each boxer gets their hands wrapped. We teach them how to do it on their own,” says Weil. “Part of that’s to develop the coordination and movement of their hands. They wear the gloves and then they start to hit the bags.”

It’s a packs a powerful punch—physically and mentally.

JCC Indianapolis has been offering the program for about four years, according to Lance Smith, fitness services and operations manager at the J. They have a well-developed program in Rock Steady Boxing’s hometown that includes two sessions weekly, one for those assessed at level one and two who have greater mobility, and another for those with greater limitations as a result of the disease, at level three and four.

“We focus on strength and balance and the last 30 minutes or so are designed for boxing,” says Smith. “It really helps, too, remembering [punch] combinations. They have to stop and think.

“It’s a mental thing. It really fires up their brain and provides a physical workout as well.”

Smith says the program has proven results for their population, which ranges in age from mid-60s to those in their 90s. And he noted that researchers believe that a particular gene mutation complicit in the disease is more prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews than in the general population. The JCC has done a lot of outreach in the Jewish community to promote the program, he says.

Spencer Enslein was 59 when diagnosed six years ago. For his wife, Jennifer, Rock Steady Boxing, combined with alternative therapies, has helped keep him off dopamine, the main medication prescribed for those with Parkinson’s.

The JCC is in a “Parkinson’s friendly” part of the country, with many retirees, she notes. But a diagnosis shouldn’t mean the end of an active life.

“We give out T shirts. They say, ‘I am not a patient. I am a boxer.’”

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