- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

THOMASTON, Conn. (AP) - Finding out he had Parkinson’s disease in 2014 was like a sucker punch to Stephen Belfiore’s gut.

But since then, the Thomaston man has fought back. This summer, he even took up boxing to ramp up his defenses against the disease, a neurological disorder that makes it difficult for people to move.

Exercise, including the coordination-heavy moves of boxing, is increasingly recommended for Parkinson’s patients as a way to alleviate symptoms and network with others who faced the same diagnosis.

In June, Belfiore, 58, was driving past a small shopping plaza on Watertown Road when he noticed a new business. Later, at home, he came across an article in the Republican-American about that business, Blue Boy Boxing Club.

He said he normally only reads the first paragraph of a story, but something intrigued him about the club. When he read that Blue Boy offers classes for people with Parkinson’s, he drove there the next day.

“I’ve been coming ever since,” Belfiore said. “Everyone in my family said they could see the difference right away - both mentally and physically.”

Club owner Kareem Blue said boxing helps with hand-eye coordination for people with Parkinson’s.

“A lot of times they have a problem with that left and right brain; they’re not making that connection,” Blue said. “So basically, when you’re doing mitt work or you’re hitting the bag, you’re firing up those neurons . and you’re using your left and right brain. You have to use your whole body.”

While there is no known cure for Parkinson’s, medical experts say exercise is key to reducing symptoms. The long list of possible symptoms include tremors; stiff muscles; involuntary movements; difficulty walking or standing; sleep disorders; fatigue; dizziness; confusion; dementia; speech problems; low blood pressure; anxiety or apathy; distorted sense or loss of smell; urinary problems; constipation; depression; drooling; weight loss; tiny handwriting; jaw stiffness and reduced facial expression and/or blank stare.

“A lot of times, people get tremors and they get the shakes,” Blue said. “In boxing, you might break your hand and you need to use your other hand. Same with Parkinson’s. You can freeze up (on one side), but I’ll use the other side. You don’t stop moving just because something’s not working. Basically, you want to be more efficient, and that’s what boxing does, whether you’ve got Parkinson’s or not.”

Belfiore has had more than his share of health problems. He had surgery for prostate cancer, ulnar nerve disorder twice and shoulder surgery three times. He also had back surgery twice in the 1990s and more recently was diagnosed with diabetes.

The Parkinson’s diagnosis in March 2014 forced Belfiore to retire and end his 28-year career as a UPS driver two years earlier than he wanted. When the Parkinson’s symptoms began affecting him, Belfiore said he became depressed and spent most of his time lying on his couch.

“It was tough, it was really tough,” he said about losing his job. “I got hit with all this stuff and it kind of really just sent me for a loop. I’ve been clawing my way back out ever since.”

Belfiore said the boxing class helped change his life. Not only does he box three days a week, he also walks every day and does yoga with his sister, who’s an instructor. He’s lost 45 pounds.

He said he now knows his life is not over; he can live with the disease, still be productive and enjoy himself.

“It took me a while to get past the initial shock, but ask me now how I’m doing, I’m doin’ great,” he said. “There are certain things I can’t do, but I don’t focus on what I can’t do. I focus on what I can do.”

Blue, an energetic and personable instructor who wore a neon-blue tank top and neon-pink shorts one day in early October, said he worked at the Litchfield Athletic Club before he opened his business. There was a member who approached him about wanting to learn how to box. But he said he had Parkinson’s, and Blue was not that familiar with the disease at the time.

They started doing the lessons together, and the member’s wife and daughter started to notice that his balance and focus were better, and he did not need his medication as often, Blue said. The wife and daughter looked into it some more, and came across a website called rocksteadyboxing.org. Rock Steady was founded in 2006 and touts boxing as a way to “fight back against Parkinson’s.”

During a recent class in Thomaston, high-energy funk, disco and R&B; classics from the 1970s and 1980s blasted from the stereo as Blue gave instructions.

“Move around that bag. Don’t stay in that one spot,” he barked. “Think about fighting. All upper cuts here.”

One of Blue’s students, Jean Johnson, 76, of Woodbury, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s seven years ago. She said she likes the class - which is offered three times per week from 11 a.m. to noon - because Blue forces students to think and he keeps the pace moving.

“We spend more time thinking,” Johnson said.

The Torrington area Parkinson’s Support Group offers exercise classes each Tuesday and Thursday - one from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and another from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. - at the Sullivan Senior Center, 88 East Albert St., Torrington. The classes are free, provided the group has the necessary funds to pay for them.

Sue Pelchat, the group’s president, said participants feel “exhausted at the end of it but highly energized. They feel great in their exhaustion.”

The sessions are led by Tim Calder, an athletic trainer from Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington.

Pelchat’s husband, John, has had Parkinson’s for eight years and is one of the participants. The 72-year-old said the classes help with balance, coordination, flexibility and strength. And there is another benefit - the classes spur people to get out and socialize.

“I look forward to going to exercise class because I have a lot of friends there,” said John Pelchat. “If it wasn’t for the Parkinson’s group and the exercise, you’d be hard pressed to get out there and find other people with Parkinson’s.”

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Information from: Republican-American, https://www.rep-am.com

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