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North Hills

Oxford Athletic Club program designed to 'knock out' Parkinson's

| Monday, May 7, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Fighters Marlene Karl (front) and  Ella McCracken go a few rounds with volunteer Tracy Polak and coach Maria Berexa.
Kristy Locklin | For the Tribune-Review
Fighters Marlene Karl (front) and Ella McCracken go a few rounds with volunteer Tracy Polak and coach Maria Berexa.
Marlene Karl (left) and Pat White practice their moves on the BoxMaster Quad, a piece of equipment that allows people to use a variety of strikes.
Kristy Locklin | For the Tribune-Review
Marlene Karl (left) and Pat White practice their moves on the BoxMaster Quad, a piece of equipment that allows people to use a variety of strikes.
Bob the Dummy often takes a beating at Oxford Athletic Club.
Kristy Locklin | For the Tribune-Review
Bob the Dummy often takes a beating at Oxford Athletic Club.

When George Parris was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease two years ago, he thought he was down for the count. But, through Rock Steady Boxing, he's fighting back.

The national nonprofit organization uses a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum to help people with Parkinson's disease, or PD, improve their quality of life. Rigorous physical and mental exercises that emphasize gross motor movement, balance, core strength and rhythm have been scientifically proven to reduce, delay and even reverse some symptoms of PD.

Since November, the Oxford Athletic Club in Wexford has offered the program to members who have been diagnosed with PD. Classes are held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. There are 20 “fighters” enrolled, including a 93-year-old War World II veteran and an 86-year-old retired priest.

Parris, 50, did a lot of soul-searching before throwing his hat into the ring.

“I was afraid to see other people in advanced stages of Parkinson's,” he says. “But everyone here is fabulous.”

So far, he's lost 15 pounds and noticed a marked decrease in his rigidity, which is a telltale symptom along with tremors, slow movements and loss of balance.

There are between 1 million and 1.5 million Americans living with PD, making it the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's disease. Allegheny County, in particular, has one of the highest numbers of cases per county in the nation, with approximately 6,000 residents battling it every day.

David Von Hofen, director of programs and outreach for Parkinson Foundation Western Pennsylvania, says exercise is essential for patients, not only to manager motor symptoms, but to combat depression and fatigue, improve sleep quality and quantity, and address other problems that medication can't help.

“There is more and more evidence now which suggests that exercise can actually modify the disease — slow the progression (neuroprotection) and make more efficient use of the existing neurons (neuroplasticity),” explains Van Hofen, whose graduate degree is in exercise physiology. “No other medication, surgery or therapy can make that claim. So if you have PD and aren't exercising, it's going to be a continuous downhill ride.”

Maria Berexa, an ACE-certified personal trainer, ran Rock Steady Boxing at other area gyms before bringing the program to the Oxford Athletic Club, which is undergoing a $10 million renovation that includes a new boxing area.

“We all take our health for granted. When you lose it, you become withdrawn and depressed,” she says. “This gets them out of the house and moving. They form a bond with each other. Some were terrified at first and didn't want to come and now they love it.”

Berexa and her fellow coaches, Jaime Young and Kathy Gonano, push fighters to get out of their comfort zones, but in fun ways. Holidays are celebrated with goofy hats and accessories and everyone gets a chance to eat cake on their birthday. A few months ago, Steelers legend Troy Polamalu dropped in on a session to help motivate the team.

“I have a strong passion for the aging population,” says volunteer Tracy Polak, a geriatric nurse practitioner.

Fighters move through a series of minute-long stations and throw gloved fists at various equipment, including focus mitts, heavy bags and a BoxMaster Quad, which boasts 12 striking pads positioned to accommodate a variety of specific punches.

Marlene Karl, of Wexford, was diagnosed two years ago. As soon as she started Rock Steady, she noticed an improvement in her mobility. Now she regularly plays Pickle Ball and is planning a golf outing with friends.

Marshall resident Pat White, who has been battling PD since 2006, says the program has helped ease her back pain and build muscle so she can live a more active life.

The ladies often have lunch together after boxing and then attend Yoga for Parkinson's, a class designed specifically for PD patients. Instructor Walt Gasiorowski, who was trained by Dr. Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist from Wexford's Brain Health Center, uses his knowledge of Aikido and Tai Chi, to adapt yoga positions with bilateral and cross-lateral stimulation patterns and vocalization exercises that increase balance, focus and cognitive function.

Barry Beitsinger, 71, of Sewickley, practices the techniques he learned to help calm his Parkinson's-related anxiety. The Vietnam veteran was diagnosed four years ago, but, according to his, wife, Laurel Beitsinger, he didn't exhibit any of the traditional warning signs, such as uncontrolled shaking. He did, however, become sad and withdrawn.

Oxford Athletic Club is a respite for the couple, who spend at least three days a week at the facility, where they have access to fitness classes, pools, an indoor track and other amenities.

“Parkinson's steals everything, including our ability to go on vacation,” says Laurel, who refers to herself as a “care partner” instead of a “caregiver.”

“Here it's like we're at a resort. They focus on taking care of the care partners so we can be strong from the ones we love.”

Young says they hope to expand the Rock Steady program to three or four days a week to accommodate people at every disease level, from the mildly symptomatic to the wheelchair-bound. Whatever their range of motion, the fighters are empowered to know they have people in their corner.

“We encourage them to have fun and to see the positive,” Young says. “There's so much more to them than the disease.”

Kristy Locklin is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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