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When Cynthia Shubert was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease four years ago, she thought all she could do was watch as her body gradually lost the ability to control its own movement. But after enrolling in Neuroboxing, a program of noncontact boxing designed to help participants stop the progression of the debilitating disease, she has a way to fight back. 

Started just over a year ago, Marian Regional Medical Center's Neuroboxing class is designed to help Parkinson's patients develop agility, muscular endurance, balance, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength. Parkinson's disease — a nervous system disorder which is estimated to afflict around 1 million Americans — causes slowness, rigidity, loss of balance, stooped posture, tremors and other symptoms, said neurologist Dr. David Hardesty. 

Neuroboxing was co-founded by Jennifer Parkinson, a former nurse who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 32. After reading that vigorous exercise could help with the disease's symptoms, Parkinson started training with a former professional boxer. “I had more energy. I was able to move better (and) my freezing episodes got better," Parkinson said. “I realized that this was something that could help a lot of people.”

In 2016, she co-founded Neuroboxing as a nonprofit and has trained instructors to teach the program in several cities around California.

In a third-floor office suite at the Marian Hancock Medical Building on Monday, personal trainer April Sargeant yelled words of encouragement to a group of 14 people with Parkinson's disease. Standing in front of boxing bags, each person punched the bag over and over, shifting their weight from leg to leg as they switched arms. 

On Monday, Shubert, 68, who has been in the class for around a year, was wearing pink protective gloves and a bright pink shirt embossed with the word "fighter" on the back of it. Shubert said she was able to see noticeable improvements in her strength and physical stamina within months of starting the class.

"Since I started, I can get down on the floor and get back up myself," Shubert said. "Before if I fell, I couldn’t get up alone. My balance is better, my strength is a lot better."

“It’s extremely anecdotal, but it’s something that I’ve noticed,” Hardesty said. “Exercise is somewhat difficult to study, but it’s one of those things that’s so evident among practitioners that it provides improvements, that it becomes standard to recommend it.”

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Jim Buchert shadow-boxes with weights during Marian Regional Medical Center's Neuroboxing class for Parkinson’s disease patients on Monday.

During Monday's class, participants worked their way through several stations, which included activities like jumping, throwing and catching a ball and bicep curls with weighted bars. The class ended with group boxing. 

Sargeant, who teaches the class three days a week at Marian and once a week at a private studio, said each class is tailored to combat different aspects of Parkinson's disease. When someone first enrolls in the class, Sargeant has them do an evaluation to see what their physical capability level is, along with a Boxing 101 class to learn the meanings of terms like hook, jab and uppercut. 

"Parkinson's affects everybody differently," she said. "For some people, it really affects their writing. For others, it's their balance, gross motor skills, or some combination of those things. In class, we try and push them past their limits — pushing them past where they normally would go and creating that forced, intense exercise is what works."  

Sargeant said she's amazed at the progress some patients are able to make in short periods of time. "I had one guy who literally could not take a step backward — his feet would not come off the ground to step backward and he could now walk around the room backward if you asked him to," she said. 

Rick Jenne, 57, joined the class three months ago after his neurologist recommended it to him.

“It gets you to use muscles that you won’t normally use. When I started here, my balance was really bad — my walking was slow and unstable — and now I’m doing better.”

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Ed Murray tosses a weighted ball during Marian Regional Medical Center's Neuroboxing class for Parkinson’s disease patients, on Monday.

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But for many of the class' participants, the health benefits are only part of the story. 

Bill Marthaller, 63, said the Neuroboxing class has become an integral part of his life.

"It's easy to be a recluse when you have Parkinson's (disease)," Marthaller said. "For many of us, the class is a reason to get up in the morning." 

Ed Murray, 73, said the group aspect of the class serves as a motivating factor.

“We’re all pretty close to each other,” Murray said. “We watch people come in and see how much they’ve improved — people who could barely walk or do anything and all of a sudden they’re exercising very well. So we’re all sort of proud of each other for how they're doing.”

“There’s a lot of humor in this group,” Murray added. “A lot of teasing and joking goes on.”

Sargeant said it's rewarding for her to see how class members go from strangers to close friends in the course of the class.

"Everyone in here is fighting the same disease — they're all fighting a disease that is affecting them and their life in every way," Sargeant said. "They talk about their meds, talk about what's happening with them and they just become friends. They've all created friendships."

Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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