Box, dance, sing and repeat
Like many of today’s retirees, Marty Lefstein, a former computer programmer who lives in Parkville with his wife, Gita, leads a busy life. He practices yoga, takes dance and boxing classes, and belongs to a singing group.
What’s surprising to many is that Lefstein, 67, has had Parkinson’s disease for the past 24 years. But far from slowing him down, that fact encourages the Lefsteins all the more to maintain an active lifestyle.
Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive disease affecting an estimated seven to 10 million people around the world, manifests differently in each individual.
Signs and symptoms of PD may include stiffness, tremors, rigidity of the muscles and slowed movement. Non-motor symptoms of the disease include fatigue, anxiety, depression, constipation and sleep difficulties.
There is no cure for PD, but it is commonly treated with a combination of medications as well as speech, occupational and physical therapy, and deep brain stimulation.
Many are finding additional benefits from more fun activities, such as boxing, dancing and singing.
The role of exercise
Since the early 2000s, many studies have confirmed that vigorous exercise is a critical component of PD self-care.
Manny Goldman of Pikesville has been living with PD for nearly a decade. In addition to his medications, Goldman, 77, said the Rock Steady Boxing classes he attends at the Edward A. Myerberg Center have been “a godsend.”
Rock Steady Boxing, founded in 2006 by Scott C. Newman, an Indianapolis-based attorney who has PD, is a non-contact form of boxing that’s shown great promise in improving and maintaining functioning for people with PD.
According to Patty Wessels, a physical therapist and Rock Steady Boxing coach at Mind/Body Physical Therapy in Mount Washington, “A lot of research has shown that intensive exercise not only slows the progress of the disease, but also is neuroprotective and can foster the development of new pathways in the brain.”
Niki Barr, a personal trainer and Rock Steady Boxing instructor who works at the Myerberg Center, stresses that it’s important to stay active throughout life, even more so for Parkinson’s patients.
“What PD does to most people is that it causes them to slow down. Muscles are not firing up like they should.
“With boxing, a coach motivates and encourages people to break through barriers. They develop speed, agility, power and improve coordination.”
Classes are free
Barr said a typical class at the Myerberg Center begins with an ice-breaker introduction “to create a community vibe.” Classmates then do a warmup that includes stretching, jogging, walking, jumping jacks, lunges, heavy bag circles and medicine ball exercises.
Then participants visit six or seven stations where they practice shadow boxing, light and heavy bags, squats and squat jumps, and various exercises to improve balance and posture. A 25-minute cooldown includes twists, partner exercises and more stretching.
At the Myerberg Center, which serves people 55 and up, there are two boxing classes available. Level 1-2 is for people with greater mobility, while Level 3-4 is for people with less mobility who need to do boxing exercises while seated.
Rock Steady Boxing classes at the Myerberg Center and Mind/Body Physical Therapy are both free thanks to funding from the Maryland Association for Parkinson Support.
Goldman credits the classes and his instructor Markese Hayden with helping him to build strength and confidence.
“It’s a very professional, well-thought-out program conducted with the highest care, kindness and love…Boxing has given me more reassurance that I’m capable of doing some things I didn’t know I could do,” he said.
Dancing as therapy
Another program, called Dance for Parkinson’s, began as a nonprofit collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group in 2001. It has been found to improve physical and cognitive functioning, as well as mood and quality of life, in people with PD.
The program is now available in more than 250 communities across the United States and around the world. Ellen Talles runs one of the only Dance for PD classes in the Baltimore metropolitan region at Goucher College.
“When you have a disease like PD, your whole life becomes PD,” said Talles, a clinical social worker, dancer, singer and actor who also manages the ParkinSonics singing group.
“My class isn’t therapy; it’s an education program designed to give patients an engrossing mind/body experience that helps them forget they have PD…It’s also a complete workout. We create sequences that help people to stretch and move in ways that they wouldn’t in life,” she said.
Participants in Dance for PD also receive rhythmic auditory stimulation training, a neurologic technique that studies have shown helps individuals with PD improve gait function and balance and minimizes the incidence of falls.
Dance for PD is appropriate for everyone, regardless of whether they have had previous dance training, and no matter how they are affected by PD.
“Everyone thinks they can’t dance, and everyone can dance,” Talles said. “There are people in the group who don’t appear to have PD at all, and others who dance in their wheelchairs.”
In addition to the physical benefits of Dance for PD, Talles notes that the class is a “warm, supportive, welcoming environment. The class [members are] very attached to each other and to me. I don’t create that myself. They are there for each other through thick and thin,” Talles said.
Dance for PD classes are also free and sponsored by the Northern Virginia-based Bowen McCauley Dance company.
Gita Lefstein and her husband, Martin, first tried a Dance for PD class taught by Talles many years ago at a PD symposium they attended.
“We do a lot of improvisation, and we follow not only what the instructor does, but each person adds something to it,” said Lefstein, who especially enjoys the “companionship and sense of community” that the group offers.
Lefstein attends four to six classes a week with her husband, plus ParkinSonics singing classes, and she has watched him improve over the past five years.
She cites his medication as one reason, “but in large part, it’s due to the classes. Not one particular class, but all of them together. And they are fun.”
Singing helps, too
The ParkinSonics vocal group grew out of a study that was conducted several years ago by the Center for Music & Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, its music school.
The study found that being part of a singing group enhanced quality of life, strengthened the voice and clarified speech in patients with PD.
When Devorah Werdesheim, who was diagnosed with PD 11 years ago, learned about the study, she found it “appealing because I was always told I couldn’t sing, and they told me I could,” she said. “After the study was over, I didn’t want the group to end, and others didn’t want it to end either,” Werdesheim added.
So, three years later, the group continues to sing together, meeting at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Senior Center at Govans Presbyterian Church in North Baltimore.
Werdesheim said Leo Wanenchak, associate director of Baltimore Choral Arts and the ParkinSonics’ musical director, is the glue that “holds the group together…He gives us an opportunity not only to use our voices but to use our bodies. He teaches to the highest part of ourselves, doesn’t talk down to us and he’s really funny!”
Werdesheim also appreciates the “safe environment to be who you are,” she said. “New people are welcome; it’s very friendly and respectful.”
Since joining the ParkinSonics, Werdesheim has learned to read music and has noticed improvement in her swallowing, breathing and speech volume.
“It’s good for our brains to do something we’ve never done before,” she said. “The fact that I could learn even at my age is very exciting. [The group] has opened a door in my life. It’s not what I expected. It’s a gift. How life-changing to learn how to sing!”
For more information about the ParkinSonics and Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, contact Ellen Talles at EllenTalles@comcast.net.
To learn more about Rock Steady Boxing at the Edward A. Myerberg Center, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (443) 963-1450.
For information about Rock Steady Boxing at 1400 Coppermine Terrace, email Patricia Wessels at email@example.com or call (443) 873-0040.
Correction: The boxing classes and ParkinSonics at the Myerberg Center and other gyms are sponsored by Maryland Association for Parkinson Support, not Rock Steady Boxing, Inc. We regret the error.