In September 2017, about 15 months after Parkinson’s disease took the world’s most celebrated boxer, Muhammad Ali, East Enders suffering with the illness began finding great relief in his sport.
Rock Steady Boxing, a non-contact boxing-inspired fitness program at Epic Martial Arts in Sag Harbor, the Hampton Bays Wellness Institute and 600 affiliates worldwide, is bringing Parkinson’s patients together for exercise and fellowship with as many as six free sessions per week.
“It’s created a strong community,” says Sarah Cohen, program manager of the Center for Parkinson’s Disease at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, which funds Rock Steady Boxing and various other local programs.
In less than a year, the Sag Harbor classes have attracted about 40 weekly participants in two different groups, sorted according to the progression of their degenerative disease (stages 1–2 and 3–4). Symptoms include tremors, problems walking and talking, and loss of motor skills.
Led by Epic Martial Arts owner Michelle Del Giorno and her volunteer assistants, the rigorous workouts include a warm up, followed by drills, non-contact sparring and real boxing techniques set to upbeat music. Throughout a typical session, the Parkinson’s patients—many clad in black “Fight Back” T-shirts—appear absolutely joyful as they push limits and sweat out their pain.
“It’s a big step for these people,” Del Giorno says, noting that she’s especially moved when participants come to class not feeling great and leave invigorated and improved. “When you don’t think you can go that day, that’s the day you must go,” she adds.
An experienced martial artist who earned her black belt three decades ago, Del Giorno says a mentor alerted her to Rock Steady Boxing a few years back. She eventually committed to becoming a coach and teaming up with Stony Brook Southampton Hospital before launching last September.
Now Parkinson’s patients come to Epic Martial Arts from as far as Greenport, Montauk and Moriches, among many other East End towns. “Look at what they go through—it gives them self-esteem,” Del Giorno says. “It’s a completely rewarding experience.”
One such student, Bob “Lefty” Lefkowitz, has been coming from Hampton Bays since the program’s inception, and it’s done wonders for him mentally, physically and emotionally. “It’s fantastic. When I finish here my symptoms stay at bay for hours,” Lefty points out. “It’s really unbelievable how exercise slows down the disease.”
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005, Lefty says he spent some dark times isolated from other sufferers. “For years I didn’t go to support groups because I didn’t want to see my future,” he recalls, noting, “you feel broken” around people who aren’t afflicted with the disease. But after some encouragement from his wife, Lefty began accepting help and taking advantage of the available programs.
“It’s a camaraderie,” he says, describing the Rock Steady Boxing community. “We’re all in the same boat.”
Cohen, who organizes various programs for Parkinson’s patients—including painting at the Parrish Art Museum, yoga, tai chi, therapeutic chorus and more—says research backs up claims that exercise slows progression of the disability.
“It supports function and mobility,” she explains, noting that boxing in particular has cognitive and physical benefits. The focused, high-intensity activity incorporates different components, and this sort of multitasking helps keep patients sharp, empowered and in charge of their bodies.
She says the strong attendance in Sag Harbor is a testament to Del Giorno’s coaching and the generosity of volunteers. “We rely heavily on our amazing volunteers,” Cohen says, describing them as people from various walks of life, such as physical therapy students, trainers and others.
During a recent Tuesday class, volunteers included a Bridgehampton resident with a Wall Street background, Michael Green; and Antoine Waldo, a certified personal trainer and boxing coach from East Hampton. Green is one of Del Giorno’s karate students and Waldo rented gym space from her.
Despite their very different backgrounds, both men acknowledge the positive vibes they feel working with Del Giorno and the Rock Steady boxers—giving back to help others.
“It’s a therapeutic experience for me,” Waldo says. “It makes me appreciate what I have.” The trainer has been so affected and humbled by the work, he now plans to get certified as a Rock Steady Boxing coach.
For his part, Green says, “I enjoy the camaraderie I have with the boxers and other volunteers,” adding, “People are amazed how hard they hit.”
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital is seeking donors to help support Rock Steady Boxing and programs like it. Learn more at southampton.stonybrookmedicine.edu/services/parkinson-disease or visit sagharbor.rsbaffiliate.com.