Parkinson’s patients fight back against disease with boxing

Prior to being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease seven years ago, Tom Brown considered himself an athlete.

He would run three miles a day during the week and 10 miles each day on the weekends.

But the disease literally slowed him down.

“Sometimes your brain doesn’t tell you what to do or to do the wrong thing,” said the 74-year-old Encinitas man whose brain began miscommunicating with his legs and muscles.

But then he discovered something earlier this year that has given him something to look forward to: boxing.

Rock Steady Boxing opened in Encinitas earlier this summer as a way for Parkinson’s patients to literally fight back against the disease.

“This gives me hope,” Brown said of Rock Steady. “Up until now, all I saw was a decline. Now, I’m starting to see improvement.”

Mike Davis, certified boxing coach at Rock Steady, said the boxing forces the parts of the body where the neurotransmitter muscles are not responding to work.

“I’ve seen it do miracles,” said Davis, who lives in Rancho Bernardo. “There are guys who have a dragging leg or some other issue. They slowly start to regenerate their motor functions here.”

Ingrid Johnson, who leads the classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays with Davis, said she became interested in the program last year when she met her pilates’ client’s husband, who had Parkinson’s, and began taking him to Rock Steady in Escondido.

There needed to be an affiliate closer to North San Diego County, Johnson determined. She eventually reached out to the Encinitas Boxing and Fitness gym, at 613 Westlake Street, where her classes have been held since the summer.

The Cardiff by the Sea woman said there is a good family-like environment at the gym because of its longevity and how known it is in Encinitas.

“You walk in the door, and you don’t feel like a stranger,” she said. “I want to foster that feeling.”

Don Janssen, 64, of Solana Beach, said one of his favorite things about the program is that tight-knit feel.

“I think the camaraderie with the other folks and just staying active help a lot,” Janssen said. “I’m also learning something I’ve never done before, and having a learning curve at my age is kind of nice.”

He said he chose to remain optimistic, thinking of Parkinson’s not as a disability “but an ability to see things from a different perspective.”

Janssen said he does not have major symptoms like tremors yet, but he does have slow movements.

He began the Encinitas Rock Steady classes — which have about 300 affiliates across the county and include physical, mental and vocal workouts — earlier this year as a way to slow the “daunting” side effects that will likely eventually come.

For others, like 83-year-old Hrand Duvalian, the classes have helped fight off already-existing symptoms, such as loss of strength and motor functions.

Duvalian’s wife, Aliene Duvalian, said she has also noticed a major improvement in her husband’s mood.

“His balance is much better, and people who know him talk about how much better he’s doing,” she said. “Attitude is very much better because he thinks this is a masculine thing that he can do. He’s not feeling so depressed about things he can’t do anymore.”

Johnson, an exercise psychologist, considers Hrand Duvalian one of her most-improved students in the classes.

When he first walked into the studio in July, he was accompanied by a cane, she said.

“Hrand did not have enough shoulder strength and couldn’t get up off his elbows,” Johnson said. “Now, he’s stronger. He was walking in with a cane, and now he doesn’t need it anymore. After the cane, we bought him a back band, which he doesn’t need anymore either, so balance improved.”

Johnson invites anyone suffering from Parkinson’s to contact her at encinitas@RSBaffiliate.com or 760-688-8266 to see if they would be good candidates for the boxing program. The cost is $150 for unlimited classes — about hour-long sessions each — per month.

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