Boxing to win when Parkinson's is the opponent
Al Latulippe was working at a gym in Chelmsford, Mass., when he was approached by a man with Parkinson’s disease. The man asked him if he was OK providing boxing training to someone with his condition.
“I thought ‘Hell,no!’” he said. “I didn’t know if I could do this, but I told him I could.”
The first time Latulippe worked with the man, Greg Gehab, it was a light training session — not because of Gehab’s condition, but because Latulippe said he was nervous. Gehab told him he had a taken a “Rock Steady” boxing class while visiting his daughter in Indianapolis and it was shown to help people with Parkinson’s. There were no similar classes in the area, so Gehab thought training with Latulippe would help.
Latulippe then watched some videos online of other Parkinson’s patients taking the Rock Steady classes and was “blown away.”
“These people were training just as hard as my amateur and my professional boxers,” Latulippe said. “So I gave (Gehab) a hard workout and when it was over he smiled and said ‘It’s just what I needed.’”
The two formed a bond and a partnership to help other Parkinson’s patients through the Rock Steady boxing program. Both became certified instructors and went out to recruit others to take classes. Gehab dropped from 240 pounds to a ripped 170.
That was three years ago and today Latulippe is offering these classes in Concord as well as the Massachusetts cities of Lawrence, Newton and Braintree. Gehab has moved to North Carolina, where he is spreading the story of Rock Steady, Latulippe said.
Parkinson’s is a slow progressing neurodegenerative brain disorder that affects more than 1 million Americans, according to the National Parkinson’s Foundation. The brain stops producing dopamine and the patient has less ability to control movements and emotions. The likelihood of developing Parkinson’s grows with age and it affects more men than women, according to the foundation.
With the Rock Steady program, the only opponent is the Parkinson’s itself. The non-contact program uses the same training that boxers use — like punching a bag, jumping rope, and core training — to help the person build strength and better balance, keep moving and improve hand-eye coordination.
“Physically, it’s forced intensive exercise,” Latulippe said. “We’re pushing them past that threshold, pushing them safely, but pushing it as hard as we can.”
On this day, Latulippe ended the class with a two-minute plank exercise. The group of six got down on the floor and held their torso up on their arms like a push-up. When the two minutes were up, there were loud expressions of relief and a lot of smiles.
“It’s a great workout. It helps with stress, with everything,” said Joan Doucette of Webster.
Doucette was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 25 years ago and has been boxing with Latulippe for a year and a half. She takes the two-hour class in Concord once a week.
“It helps with your general outlook, your balance, your confidence,” she said. “I’m doing things I couldn’t do a year and a half ago” — things like walking the 2-mile trail through The Flume gorge in Franconia Notch State Park.
Doucette’s daughter, Renee Doucette, said she’s noticed a difference in her mother.
“She has more confidence in her ability to handle things, pick up things, move them around. She has more confidence in her abilities,” Renee Doucette said. “She knows she can handle whatever comes her way. She knows with Rock Steady she can stay mobile.”
Bob Lowrie of North Sutton is a golfer, does aerobic classes and takes the boxing class. He was diagnosed 10 years ago and said the program has helped him get stronger. He and the others agree it provide help beyond the body.
“It’s like a social group. It’s a lot more about the friendship,” he said.
Steven Lowe of Canterbury was diagnosed in January of 2014. He’s been training with Latulippe for two years and agrees the camaraderie is a big benefit from the classes.
“You just feel more happiness,” he said. “Everybody’s got the same problem but exhibit it differently.”
Lowe had a fall and broke a rib, keeping him out of class for about six months.
“I lost a lot of muscle,” he said. “You atrophy so fast with Parkinson’s.”
Latulippe said there’s something very special about these boxers, something he hasn’t seen in his non-Parkinson’s clients.
“You see the results of the physical change coming through the mental side of things,” he said. “I’ve worked with amateur boxers, professional boxers, but I have never seen the mental side change the physical side of a person.”
Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday news report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (603) 206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging.