Boxing for Parkinson's class finds new home in Groton

Groton — As '60s music filled a room at the Groton Community Center last week, Annmarie Blanda, donning boxing gloves, punched a heavy bag from side to side, shouting out numbers from 1 to 10 to fellow members of the exercise class.

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!" they replied in unison, while energetically repeating the boxing moves on the heavy bags.

Nearby, instructor Rosie Leopoldino took students aside to individually spar with them at their own pace.

They were all participating in a class for people with Parkinson's disease, with exercises designed to build eye coordination, balance and strength and exercise their voice.

"We have so much fun, because we do games and we box," said Leopoldino, adding that the class also serves as a support group for members.

Two years ago, Leopoldino started teaching a Boxing for Parkinson's class when she opened Araxa Martial Arts at the Groton Shopping Plaza. Faced with the time demands of running the business while also working full-time for the U.S. Postal Service, Leopoldino closed the martial arts business last spring, she said.

But she didn't want to give up on her students.

With the help of Groton Parks and Recreation Department, which purchased equipment from her to outfit a room for boxing, Leopoldino is now teaching a  class called "Boxing for Parkinson's and More" at the Groton Community Center.

Jerry Lokken, the department's recreation services manager,  said Parks and Recreation is always looking for ways to serve the public better and for people, such as Leopoldino, who have a passion they'd like to share with others.

He said Parks and Recreation was excited that the opportunity presented itself to serve another segment of the community. He added that the equipment is used for other programs as well and the department is also fortunate to have Joe Russack-Baker, another passionate and talented person who taught at Araxa, teaching kickboxing classes.

"The Boxing for Parkinson’s and Kickboxing programs we offer are not typical for many parks and recreation departments, so we’re proud that we can offer them," Lokken said in an email. "We’re always open to new ideas for programs and looking for talented people to offer them to the community."

Camaraderie even more important

During the boxing class, the group did a range of exercise from punching bags, to performing high knee drills, to playing a round of noodle ball, frequently laughing or talking to each other. For their warm-up, they each did their own routine, from jumping rope to doing push-ups.

"It’s good exercise," said Stonington resident Bob Gilbert, 72, a member of Leopoldino's class whose wife, Maggy, comes with him for support. "It helps with balance, it helps with coordination, and it’s a good time. It's more than just exercise. It's friendship."

Gilbert said the members of the class have gotten to know each other and act as a support group where they talk to each other about topics such as their medications and progression.

Blanda, 59, of Pawcatuck, who started taking Leopoldino's class 14 months ago after being diagnosed with Parkinson's, said the class has helped her physically with her agility and also mentally. The class is like a family, she said.

“We have two choices in life when we have a [neurodegenerative] disease. We can either say 'woe is me,' or we can embrace it and move on,” she said. “I think everyone in this program has embraced it and moved on.”

She urged other people with Parkinson's to join and not be afraid, stressing that participants have fun and perform exercises at their own pace, and nobody is judging.

Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by symptoms such as slowness of movement, rigidity of muscles, resting tremors, and balance issues, though each person will have their own unique experience, said Dr. Joy Antonelle de Marcaida, the medical director of the Hartford Healthcare Chase Family Movement Disorders Center, which also offers boxing and other exercise programs.

She said people participating in exercise programs, including boxing, report improvements in their ability to perform daily activities, such as getting dressed or caring for their personal hygiene.

While all exercise modalities have potential benefits, "intense and vigorous programs, such as boxing, potentially have the ability to slow down the progression of the disease itself," de Marcaida said. For example, studies have shown boxing can improve agility, which is crucial to people with Parkinson's disease, as well as improve balance and gait.

Plus, exercise also releases feel-good endorphins, and boxing, in particular, brings an additional benefit:

"The feeling of boxing is that they are in this together fighting Parkinson's disease," de Marcaida said.

Leopoldino, whose mother had Parkinson's, was a boxer and decided to start her own boxing gym two years ago after becoming certified in Rock Steady Boxing. The boxing method for people with Parkinson's disease, is taught internationally and nationally, and was started in 2006 by a former Indiana prosecutor, Scott C. Newman, who has Parkinson's, according to the nonprofit organization's website.

Catherine Gualtieri, who along with her husband, Jack Alkon, run the Southeastern Connecticut Parkinson's Support group, said Parkinson's can can cause a gamut of symptoms and no two people experience them in the same way. Gualtieri, who takes another adaptive boxing class offered in the region through Whaling City Athletic Club, said classes such as boxing, Tai Chi and a dancing class for people with Parkinson's offered at Connecticut College can all be helpful for people with Parkinson's and also boost mood and provide social benefits.

“Boxing can work to improve fundamental skills that can challenge people with Parkinson’s disease such as balance and reaction time, while also providing aerobic exercise. It can also be very beneficial for them to exercise in a supportive environment in which everyone is facing similar challenges," Dr. Rebecca Gilbert, the vice president and chief scientific officer of the American Parkinson Disease Association, said in a written statement. She added that as with any fitness class, participants should receive approval of their physician and work with trainers experienced with the needs of people with Parkinson’s.

Dr. Peter Shea, 65, of Mystic, who worked as a primary care doctor and hospital administrator at Backus Hospital, has been taking Leopoldino's class for the past year a half, talks to his classmates about his symptoms that other people might not understand. 

"It makes you feel like you’re not alone," he said.

He said he looks forward to the class, and said it's great the Town of Groton supports it.

"The exercise is great," he said. "The camaraderie is even more important, I think."

More information 

What: Boxing for Parkinson's and More class ($59 for residents; $79 for non-residents)

When: offered from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays

Where: Groton Community Center (the former Fitch Middle School), 61 Fort Hill Road

Registration: Available online at or in person at the Groton Parks and Recreation office, 29 Spicer Ave. in Noank. People can also download forms and mail them.

More information is available at or by calling (860) 536-5680.


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