WATERTOWN — Seventy-something-year-old Francine T. King slipped on her boxing gloves on Thursday afternoon and prepared to do some smashing.
She joined a chorus of pops!, thuds! and thwacks! at the Fairgrounds YMCA in a program that stands up to the effects of Parkinson’s disease and takes shots at slowing its symptoms and improving the lives of those with the disease.
Since July, the Fairgrounds YMCA and Samaritan Health System has been offering, free of charge, Balanced Boxing, a specialized exercise program designed to improve the mental acuity, strengthening and balance of Parkinson’s disease patients.
It’s been a hit.
Parkinson’s is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. There is no cure.
Mrs. King first noticed her symptoms in May of 2018.
“I started to have tremors and the doctor originally thought it was an essential tremor,” she said before Thursday’s Balanced Boxing session. “But my neurologist said it was definitely a Parkinson’s tremor.”
Studies have shown that exercise can slow down symptoms of the disease. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, one study showed that people with the disease who exercise regularly for 2½ hours a week had a smaller decline in mobility and quality of life over two years.
“Exercise will slow the progression,” Mrs. King said. “So I started looking around, trying to find some type of exercise program for Parkinson’s.”
She didn’t have to look far. Mrs. King’s brother, James Wypij, is a fitness instructor for boxing at YMCA Buffalo Niagara. There, in 2016, he developed a Balanced Boxing program for Parkinson’s patients.
Boxing programs designed to fight Parkinson disease symptoms are not unusual. There are different approaches and the Balanced Boxing program involves “focus mitt boxing.” One person wears boxing gloves and the partner wears padded mitts to absorb the punches.
“This personal experience that exists between the boxer and the volunteer in my belief is one of the reasons the Balanced Boxing program is impactful, and why members have continued to come to classes and expand the attendance,” Mr. Wypij wrote in his training guide.
Mrs. King’s husband, Robert King, used his brother-in-law’s detailed training guide to work with his wife at home. Last fall, he brought the guide to the attention of a family friend, Barbara Morrow, vice president of Long Term Care Services at Samaritan’s Summit Village, She’s also on the YMCA board of directors. Since June, the Balanced Boxing program has been meeting twice a week at the Fairgrounds YMCA and once a week at Summit Village.
Mr. King is one of the volunteer instructors.
“I like the whole concept of fighting against Parkinson’s rather than sitting at home and waiting for it to win,” he said.
He recalled that the day his wife, Francine, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in May of 2018 was “one of the longest days” of their marriage.
“We spent a lot of time just hanging on to each other because her dad has Parkinson’s, a really severe case of it,” he said. “The first thing you think of is how he was with Parkinson’s. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s different for every person. We talked it over, and by the end of the day, Fran said, ‘The Lord must be having this happen for a reason, so let’s go work on it.’”
Thursday’s program attracted about 20 participants. People who want to know more about the program can attend a seminar at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 9 at the Sackets Harbor American Legion, 209 Ambrose St., hosted by the North Country Coalition for Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders. The program will involve a demonstration of the boxing program and a session on the potential benefits of cannabidiol (CBD).
Mr. King said the Balanced Boxing program has been popular at the two city locations, with eager participants.
“They tell us one of the biggest things for them is they look around the room and everybody is in the same boat and they don’t feel self-conscious about it,” he said. “When they go out in public, they do. So here, it’s a “We’re all in this together’ sort of thing. That makes a big difference.”
A key part of the program are its balance skills. The instructor calls out steps to correlate with punch sequences they must memorize.
“The balance is what you notice right away,” Mrs. King said. “It’s much better than it was before. And the energy and agility, it all goes hand-in-hand.”
Boxer Janis D. Griggs, Henderson Harbor, has also noticed her balance improving.
“That’s one of the biggest things,” she said. “I’ve fallen several times. The older you get anyway, even without Parkinson’s, you don’t want to fall. They teach us here how to feel more balanced and actual exercises to become more balanced. It helps you stabilize.”
Specifically, Mrs. Griggs said that the balance skills mainly involve learning steps.
“You may have seen a boxing match where somebody lost the match because he put his foot behind him instead of beside the other one? We don’t do that here. We learn how to walk forward and not trip ourselves,” Mrs. Griggs said. “It’s all about the steps.”
“One of the first things they notice is the balance,” Mrs. King said. “It helps with agility, and it helps with your mind too because you are constantly trying to think, ‘What’s the next step?’”
Besides learning some steps, Mrs. Griggs has also developed quite the punching skills.
“My husband was my partner until I got really strong,” she said. “He has bad shoulders and he can’t be my partner anymore because the doctor told him not to do it anymore. It hurt him.”
Before Balanced Boxing, Mrs. Griggs had never done anything “vaguely” athletic.
“But boxing, I like,” she said. “It’s like a runner’s high.”
Like some others in the program, Mrs. Griggs had a punching bag installed at her home.
“I need a strong (mitt) partner because I really like to hit,” she said.
Mrs. Griggs’s husband, Robert Whiteman, said he entered a depressed state when Janis was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in July of 2018.
“It was only through my own mental health coordinator that I found the coalition,” he said of the local Parkinson’s support group. It was through it that he learned about a Balanced Boxing seminar and mentioned it to his wife.
“I said, “Let’s try it,” Mr. Whiteman said. “It’s better than doing nothing. It’s just meant the world to us. It’s given us a community that understands. We can come in here, there’s no judgment, Everybody is helping everybody else.”
At home, Mr. Whiteman has noticed a difference in his wife as she battles Parkinson’s.
“She has a much better balance,” he said. “She is more aware of where she is in her space, and that’s a huge thing. She has a propensity to break bones, so falling down is not a good thing.”
He added, “This is maintenance, not a cure. It’s a way forward.”
Michael Bova, an official with USA Boxing, is more used to traditional boxing, but volunteered to be a Balanced Boxing instructor.
“My expertise is able to help them a lot more to be able to help them get in good form, to teach them how to take care of their equipment and to help them do various punches to get things working,” he said during a 5-minute break at the one-hour Thursday class.
Mr. Bova said he has seen reserved, shy people come to the program and become more outgoing.
“To see something like that means the world to me,” he said.
At Thursday’s program, Steven N. Rowell, chief program officer at the Watertown Family YMCA, stood on the sidelines for a few minutes to take it all in. He said the YMCA was eager to work with the program when informed about the program by board member Mrs. Morrow.
“From a YMCA perspective, this is what we do,” he said. “We look out into the community and find a need and we can see if there’s anything we can do as an organization to support that need.”
Since the program began this past summer, Mr. Rowell has noticed a shift in attitudes of participants.
“You can see it just in the way they walk,” he said. “Their heads are up, they’re more upbeat and energetic, and their lives are a little bit better. The physical component is one thing, but the mind component, and that whole mind, body and spirit — and to be able to get out and meet with other people — it’s all good stuff.”
Meanwhile, away from the sessions, some Balanced Boxers have learned the pleasure of rolling with the punches at home.
Mr. King said he installed a heavy-duty punching bag at his workshop at their home near Cape Vincent, where his wife Francine can often be found.
“Sometime after dinner or something, she’d say, ‘I need to go out and hit something.’ It’s frustrations,” he said. “You can really go at it and get it out of your system and while you’re doing that, you’re getting exercise.”