Parkinson’s patients fight back — with their fists

October 1, 2018

When Doug Gilpatrick throws punches with his red boxing gloves, he’s not just striking at pads.

The 69-year-old is delivering blows to a disease that leaves his hands quaking, slurs his voice and turns his feet to anchors.

“It’s like fighting back against Parkinson’s,” said Chris Sokol-White, a personal trainer who is working to help Gilpatrick and other people in Santa Fe better manage symptoms of debilitating medical conditions through a boxing program specifically designed for Parkinson’s patients.

According to the New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition, about 9,000 people in the state are living with the disease. Studies show exercise is essential for patients to maintain mobility and remain active.

Sokol-White recently started a new class at the Montecito of Santa Fe assisted living community that’s affiliated with Rock Steady Boxing, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that has developed a noncontact boxing drill class for Parkinson’s patients that focuses on agility, hand-eye coordination and speed exercises.

Personal growth is as important to the trainer as physical conditioning. As his clients face and fight their diagnoses, Sokol-White says, he works to create a space that fosters their spirit.

“You have to go deeper to push further and beyond what your think your limitations are,” Sokol-White said.

His class is the second Rock Steady affiliate in Santa Fe.

Adrienne Shurbet, 50, who is also a Pilates instructor, started the first class in January 2017 after noticing a lack of resources for people with neurological disorders.

She’s seen improvements in her clients’ fitness and balance during assessments every six months, she said, and many have told her they leave class feeling happy.

“They walk out feeling way better about their disease,” Shurbet said. “Exercise is really the one thing they can do that’ll make them feel like they’re in control.”

Sokol-White, 40, became a personal trainer about 11 years ago after working as a massage therapist. He moved to Santa Fe a year ago from Houston, where he worked with people with various disabilities and medical conditions — those who aren’t typically served at a gym. He wanted to continue the work in Santa Fe.

Like Shurbet, he went through Rocky Steady Boxing’s trainer certification program and began conducting classes in July. Gilpatrick was one of his first clients.

During a class with Sokol-White, Gilpatrick moved from weight machines to the mat to squaring off with boxing bags. The trainer challenged him to yell louder, punch harder and, during his last round of weight lifting, to keep pushing.

“These guys like to be pushed hard,” Sokol-White said. “That’s why they’re here.”

The intense workout helps Parkinson’s patients absorb more dopamine and stave off worsening effects of the disease, he said. “Exercise is medicine.”

So far, there are two people in Sokol-White’s Rock Steady Boxing class at Montecito, with more scheduling assessments in upcoming weeks, he said. He’s adapted the program to fit a broader range of senior clients.

“Fitness is a big deal for our residents, so finding more creative, engaged programs is important,” said Edgar Ortiz, executive director of Montecito of Santa Fe. “It’s not being done in most of our senior communities.”

Not only does it help build muscle, Ortiz said, but it strengthens self-confidence and breaks stereotypes about senior living.

Shurbet has about 50 clients in her program.

She doesn’t view Sokol-White as competition, she said. Instead, she’s glad to see more opportunities for people with Parkinson’s.

“It really feels good that we present some glimmer of hope,” she said. “There’s no cure, but you can do this.”

If you go

Rock Steady Boxing at the Montecito of Santa Fe

Where: 500 Rodeo Road

When: 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and 3 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays

Contact: 505-428-777, montecito@rsbaffiliate.com

Rock Steady Boxing Santa Fe

Where: 2801 Rodeo Road

When: 2 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays

Contact: 505-930-1168, santafe@rsbaffiliate.com

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