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A punch above

The arrival to Wairarapa of Counterpunch for Parkinson’s – a high-intensity, non-contact boxing-based exercise designed specifically for people living with Parkinson’s – could be said to be the work of angels.

The head and assistant coaches at Masterton’s Wairarapa Boxing Academy [WBA] will be trained to teach Counterpunch classes, thanks in large part to funds raised by Smash Fit gym in Auckland, in memory of “three beautiful past members”. Sueanne Awhitu, Christine Ross and Robyn Hooper, collectively known as “the Smash Angels”, all lived with Parkinson’s – and, in their honour, the gym raised “thousands of dollars” to benefit the Parkinson’s community throughout Aotearoa.

“Smash Fit raised the money specifically to help us forward our goal of bringing Parkinson’s exercise to as many people around the country as possible,” Lisa Gombinsky Roach, a fitness industry professional with 25 years’ experience and co-founder of Counterpunch for Parkinson’s, told Midweek.

Parkinson’s New Zealand Wairarapa – with “the great support” of the United Lodge of Masterton [Freemasons New Zealand] – have also been able to contribute funding, which, alongside the angels’ bequest, will

There are about 110 people living with Parkinson’s in Wairarapa, many of whom turn to the support and advice provided by Parkinson’s New Zealand and the Wairarapa action group to understand and manage their condition.

“People with Parkinson’s tend to be really, really well educated about their own condition,” Gombinsky Roach said.

Gombinsky Roach’s view is this is necessary because not only is Parkinson’s different from one person to the next, but contact time with a neurologist or other specialists may be infrequent.

“You may see [your neurologist] once a year, maybe even less, often for just 15 minutes. And your general practitioner might know very little about Parkinson’s.

“So, the Parkinson’s community tends to be one that’s had to take the bull by the horns, and there is a lot of self-management and self-education that comes with this type of [neurological condition].”

Raising awareness of the condition for would-be coaches is an important aspect of Counterpunch training, Gombinsky Roach said.

“I’ll teach them about Parkinson’s as a condition and specifically how it affects movement, and how they need to modify boxing-based exercises to suit the Parkinson’s population,” she said.

“Then I’ll help the coaches work through how, in that exercise environment, they can make the Counterpunch classes as productive and useful as possible for people with Parkinson’s.”

The ‘undeniable’ power of exercise

The importance of exercise – any exercise – for people with Parkinson’s cannot be overstated, Gombinsky Roach said.

“I would say in the last 10 years, our understanding of how important exercise is in the face of neurological conditions, like Parkinson’s, has dramatically changed,” she said.

Referring to the work of neurologist Dr Barry Snow, she said, “We don’t fully understand the details of it, but we know that there’s something magic when it comes to exercise for long-term brain health. And that’s across the board, not just Parkinson’s specific.

“And as long as we are exercising, we are seeing the benefits.

“Just like the general population, people who exercise fare better as they age than people who don’t. That’s an undeniable fact. “But what we see in the Parkinson’s population is – despite a long time spent having the condition – we see better outcomes and longer lasting mobility.”

Gombinsky Roach said exercise is even considered “potentially condition-modifying” compared to medication, which predominantly manages symptoms.

For example, “exercise can make the brain cells more resilient to the condition process. It can increase the naturally produced dopamine at brain level, as well as the receptivity to both naturally produced dopamine and the dopamine people take synthetically.”

Boxing-based exercises are effective for people living with Parkinson’s because “there’s a lot of stuff going on”.

“There’s forward reach, there’s rotation, which is really important for core strength and mobility. For example, if somebody wants to roll over in bed in the middle of the night, they need to be able to rotate the upper part of their body,” Gombinsky Roach explained.

“There’s a lot of balance, agility, and coordination, and a huge cognitive component as well. Boxers have to remember, for example, a three or four punch combination and be able to deliver it – while maybe thinking about something else at the same time.”

And through group exercise, people living with Parkinson’s get the opportunity to do another crucially important activity – socialise.

“We have a motto: Exercise is important, but socialisation, interaction and not being isolated with Parkinson’s is unbelievably important.”

Stars are aligning

For Channyn and Laurence Titter, owners and operators of WBA, Gombinsky Roach’s visit to their gym is an example of “all the stars aligning”.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve been providing our space to Parkinson’s Wairarapa for free so they can come and do physical education,” Channyn said.

“But we’ve always talked about being able to provide specific training sessions tailored to the Parkinson’s community, but haven’t been able to make it happen.

“Getting coaches trained is quite difficult when we need them on the floor [of the gym]. But, we’ve managed to tee up this weekend for Lisa to come and train our head coach, Laurence, and assistant coach, Abel Ripene, to deliver the Counterpunch class to the Parkinson’s community.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to give back to the community.”

Counterpunching into the future

Roslyn Lafrentz, coordinator of the Parkinson’s New Zealand Wairarapa action group, is also looking forward to offering “a very beneficial and additional activity for anybody with a neurological condition”.

She encourages anyone interested in finding out more about Counterpunch and its benefits to attend the information session on Saturday, April 27, and give it a go on Sunday, April 28.

“I think Counterpunch will provide an all-round exercise, help strengthen you, and could help make things in your everyday life easier.”

For more information about Counterpunch, and to register your interest for the Wairarapa training sessions, contact Roslyn Lafrentz on 027 264 8623, or email [email protected].

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