Rock Steady Boxing Classes Aimed to Help Those with Parkinson’s

EPIC Martial Arts Sensei Michelle Del Giorno, at center, leads a warmup of boxing moves during a Rock Steady boxing class at the EPIC Martial Arts studio in Sag Harbor on Friday, 10/13/17
EPIC Martial Arts Sensei Michelle Del Giorno, at center, leads a warmup of boxing moves during a Rock Steady boxing class at the EPIC Martial Arts studio in Sag Harbor on Friday.

Photos and Text By Michael Heller

Parkinson’s disease, a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, is an affliction that has frustrated both its victims and the medical profession alike for very long time. While the first unambiguous references to the disease appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, several early sources, including an Egyptian papyrus, an Ayurvedic medical treatise and the Bible, describe symptoms very similar to those of the disease. In 2015 over 6.2 million people were affected by it globally, resulting in over 117,000 deaths. The cause of the disease is still unknown, and it cannot be cured, so currently the focus of effort is to relieve the symptoms for those who suffer from it.

Some studies showed that boxing, and the physical and mental processes that go along with it, was a practice that helps relieve the symptoms for those with the disease, and this fact was not lost on Michelle Del Giorno, the Sensei at EPIC Martial Arts in Sag Harbor. Roughly four years ago Tom Callos, a longtime mentor of Ms. Del Giorno’s, sent her a video of a news segment that featured Rock Steady Boxing, a program that helped those afflicted with Parkinson’s, and for some time she wondered how she could bring the program to her dojo in Sag Harbor. It was through a twist of fate, after she was invited to speak about the benefits of martial arts to a local Parkinson’s support group, that everything started to fall into place, she says. The Suffolk County Director of the American Parkinson’s Association asked her if she would like to attend the Rock Steady Boxing certification program in Indianapolis, and with the help of Stony Brook/Southampton Hospital and Sarah Cohen — Stony Brook Southampton’s new program manager for its Parkinson’s disease program — she was sponsored to travel to Indianapolis to receive the training. Now Ms. Cohen and Ms. Del Giorno, with the support of the hospital and Epic Martial Arts have brought this program to Sag Harbor.

“It’s a boxing regimen, it’s high intensity,” says Ms. Del Giorno. “That’s the key to the program. You’re working quickly, putting together combinations, footwork movement skills, rhythm, and you’ve got to think about what you’re doing and remember the motions, and all of these things together are what’s helping them and giving them the benefits of the program. ESPN had done a study, and they found that of all sports boxing was the one that had the best results.” Fellow instructor Bob Mauro, who was certified alongside Ms. Del Giorno, agrees. “You’re using your whole body, and learning new movements that are new to the individual,” he said. “As Parkinson’s is breaking down neurological circuits in the brain, this exercise is creating new ones.”

The program has come with rave reviews from its participants. Susan King, wife of participant Kelly King, says her husband was more excited than she’d seen him in some time. “He’s not a talker,” she says, “and I’d never heard him talk so much about something in a long time.” Participant Richard Lopinto agrees. “I just have more energy, and more feeling like I have the ability to overcome, which ordinarily would be a very difficult thing to do,” he said.

Michelle Del Giorno leads a group cheer to conclude the class on Friday.
Volunteer Michelle Mathers works the pads with a participant.
A participant works the bag, and enjoys every minute.
Michelle Del Giorno works with a participant.
Southampton Hospital physical therapist and Rock Steady volunteer Sarah Cohen helps a participant with putting on his boxing gloves.