Mark Guido had his eyes fixed on a punching bag. Jab after jab, he didn’t break focus. He had the gym to himself -- a winter storm kept other boxers off the roads. Guido said he couldn’t afford to skip.
“If I don’t work out every day, I can tell. By the end of the day ... I’m having problems. My dexterity is gone. I’m fatigued. Coordination is off,” he said.
Guido has Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder that impacts millions of people in the United States. Experts say that exercise can help reduce symptoms -- and some Connecticut residents are taking their fight to Whaling City Athletic Club in New London.
Guido had been easing into an early retirement a few years ago, but his plans were cut short when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Things he normally took for granted started to get hard.
“I was at a point at my low where I couldn’t pull my pants up without difficulty, put a shirt on, button buttons,” Guido said.
Since then, he’s experimented with medication and has improved his diet. He also started boxing -- and he says it’s made a huge difference.
“I’m back to where people don’t realize I do have Parkinson’s,” Guido said.
Guido is part of a program called Championship Rounds. Three times a week, when the weather is a bit better, the gym fills up with other members fighting movement disorders.
They start with mobility drills and balance exercises. When the boxing begins, everyone gets involved. Spouses and family members help the boxers strap into their gloves. Then, they turn up the music.
“They can improve,” said Kent Ward, the gym’s owner. “They can develop new neural pathways. They can get stronger. They can get fit. They can develop lean muscle tissue. They can develop bone density.”
Ward won’t punch back, but he works the boxers hard.
“They come in to just improve their lives,” he said.
Ward’s been a fixture in the New London boxing scene for decades. When he started Championship Rounds a few years ago, he didn’t want to treat people with movement disorders any differently.
“Whatever you did to train a fighter, you take into this,” Ward said. “The mental part of the fight game. The physical part of the fight game. And you modify it for this. Because it’s the same concept. They’re both in the same arena.”
Many of the coaches are volunteers. Some are from a 60-plus men’s boxing group called the Gray Dogs.
A few are professional fighters, like Marcia Agripino. The boxers with Parkinson’s she was working with inspired her to come out of retirement.
“Seeing the stuff they go through on a day-to-day basis -- I’m like, if they can get through a day with the struggles that they have, there’s no reason I can’t compete and honor them and wear their logo every time I go into the ring,” Agripino said.
Boxing programs for people with Parkinson’s have gained traction across the country with Rock Steady, an international program with hundreds of affiliates.
Sule Tinaz is a movement disorder specialist and has been studying and treating people with Parkinson’s disease at the Yale School of Medicine. She observed Championship Rounds in action and said a big plus of the program is the number of coaches who work with the boxers.
“You have to keep in mind, these are people who are at risk for falls. So having multiple trainers -- it was a wonderful idea in terms of the safety of the people doing the exercises,” Tinaz said.
The program is geared toward people with all types of movement disorders, not just Parkinson’s.
Michael Lovetere, a retired school principal, boxes only with his right arm. The left side of his body was paralyzed by a stroke.
“I feel strong,” Lovetere said. “The funny thing is that I feel strong, but I just don’t have a connection from my brain to the muscles. I kid around saying I need a new SIM card for my brain.”
Lovetere said the camaraderie of the program keeps him and other members coming back. Here, it feels like family.
Coach Dean Festa sat down with Lovetere after class.
“Well, I tell you what, my heroes are you guys, forget these guys,” Festa said, gesturing to the wall lined with posters of professional boxers.
“That’s easy,” he said. “No one has to do this. You could sit at home and watch TV all day, but to come here and fail? And then still continue. But eventually you succeed and that’s the whole idea. For me, this is life-changing. For me as well as you guys.”
The two embraced, and Festa helped Lovetere to his feet. Once he was up, Lovetere insisted on walking the rest of the way over to the punching bags by himself. He wanted to do a few extra rounds.