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Published on November 13, 2018

UHS retiree fights Parkinson's with Rock Steady Boxing

Not long ago, UHS retiree Michael McCann defined his life by the limitations of his Parkinson’s disease. At age 60, he couldn’t turn over in bed or dress himself without asking for help.

“I was physically weak and feeling isolated,” he said. “I was ready to give up.”

Then his brother-in-law Scott Vickrey found a bit of information about something called “Rock Steady Boxing,” a non-contact fight-training program designed to be therapeutic for people with Parkinson’s.

Mr. McCann decided to give it a try. In 2017 he attended his first Rock Steady class at a gym in Conklin. There he met up with trainer John Cappello, who immediately put him at ease.

“Coach explained that there are elements of fight training that are very well suited to helping Parkinson’s patients gain mobility and confidence,” Mr. McCann said. “It can help you reclaim your lost flexibility and manual dexterity.”

An avid participant since then, Mr. McCann has found the program amazingly beneficial.

“This is the anchor in my life,” he said. “It’s been so helpful to me that I’d like everyone with Parkinson’s to know about it.”


COPING WITH CHANGE

A native of Elmira Heights, N.Y., Mr. McCann graduated from Thomas A. Edison High School there. He received a bachelor’s in history and education from the State University of New York at Cortland and a master of business administration degree from Binghamton University.

Joining UHS in 1981, he served as manager of Access Care at UHS Hospitals from 1995 to 2014. He was just as well-known for his duties in chairing the Emergency Preparedness and Environment of Care committees within the Hospitals.

For several years, whenever the internal Command Center had to be activated during an emergency, he was there, in a front-and-center leadership role.

His life changed when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010, but, with a lot of determination, he continued working until 2014.

Parkinson’s affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine. Symptoms include muscle rigidity, tremors and changes in speech and gait. After diagnosis, treatments can help relieve symptoms, but currently there is no cure.

The disorder affects mostly older people, but can occur in younger adults. More than 50,000 American are diagnosed every year.

In spite of topping 6’3,” with a husky build, Mr. McCann said he'd never considered himself an avid athlete and, prior to Rock Steady, hadn’t really made fitness a priority.

“I’d never stuck with an exercise program in my life before,” he said. “Now I go to Rock Steady three times a week because I want to get the most out of it.”

He noted that the program’s lineup of bobbing, weaving, punching and dodging is fun, but also challenging – an invigorating workout.

As a regular participant, or “fighter,” he also started meeting many of the 60 other people with Parkinson’s who regularly come to the sessions. About a dozen or so individuals attend each scheduled class.

“Everyone in the group benefits in two ways,” he said. “There is physical improvement and there is also the fellowship that we find in all coping with the same condition. There’s a lot of mutual encouragement going on. We’re like brothers and sisters.”


EXERCISE THAT CHALLENGES

A class in action is something impressive to observe.

Affectionately known as “Coach” to the men and women in his Rock Steady group in Conklin, John Cappello provides guidance and motivation through one demanding exercise routine after another.

Even a person without Parkinson’s – even if reasonably fit – would find the drills challenging: an hour’s worth of bending, stretching, punching and balancing. No one gets hit, but everyone keeps moving to the extent of his or her ability:

You work a traditional heavy bag and the smaller speed bag, as would a professional boxer in training. You jab and hook at a small striking bag suspended from both floor and ceiling.

You spar, without touching, against an opponent’s giant Styrofoam jousting noodle. You stretch and do push-ups and, if you can, roll backwards on a floor mat.

Everyone looks out for everyone else. The workout is strictly non-contact, monitored and safe, but it’s not easy. You sweat plenty.

Respectful, knowledgeable and inspiring, Mr. Cappello treats his students with care while pushing them to test their limits. The focus is on cardio, balance, coordination and agility, as well as breathing and voice-activation.

“A study at the Cleveland Clinic showed that forced-intensity exercise can benefit Parkinson’s patients,” he said. “If the person achieves 80 to 90 percent of their maximum heart rate, it’s been shown to be of benefit.”

Rock Steady Boxing Southern Tier NY is the local affiliate of Rock Steady Boxing Inc., headquartered in Indianapolis. It was founded in 2006 by Scott C. Newman, a former Marion County, Indiana, prosecutor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his early 40s.

Based on the type of training used by competitive prizefighters but adapted to people with Parkinson’s, it’s designed to improve patients’ quality of life and sense of efficacy and self-worth.

Nationwide it’s been shown to dramatically improve the ability of patients to live independent lives, and recent studies suggest that intense exercise regimens of this kind may be neuro-protective, actually working to delay the progression of symptoms.

No boxing experience is necessary, and the program serves both men and women of all ages, ability levels and degrees of illness.

A Long Island native, Mr. Cappello taught high school physical education and coached football at the New York Institute of Technology before moving to the Greater Binghamton area.

As a personal trainer, he has coached and taught at the YMCA and the Jewish Community Center. He teamed up with Rock Steady Boxing in 2016.

He concurs with Mr. McCann that the emotional support and confidence-building elements of the program are at least as important as the physiological benefits.

“The most dramatic benefit is the sense of camaraderie and community among the fighters,” Mr. Cappello said. “They gain confidence in being able to do things they didn’t think they could do.”

Continuing, he said participants have made comments to him such as: “I can roll over in bed now, and get out of bed on my own.” “I can go for a walk and not feel tired.” “I feel stronger.”


TANGIBLE BENEFITS

One of the fighters, Jim Nowik, a retired mechanic and insurance agent from the Montrose, Pa., area, is one of those who has seen measurable benefits from Rock Steady.

“At one point, before the boxing program, I was getting around on an electric scooter,” he said. “Two years ago, I parked it. I was determined to walk, and Rock Steady has given me the drive to do that.”

Recently Mr. Nowik restacked a ton of pellet-stove pellets—bag by bag—in his cellar in 20 minutes, something he wouldn’t have been able to do a year earlier.

Mr. McCann said Mr. Nowik’s description is similar to other stories among participants who have regained lost functionality. And he has noticed a slowing or reversal in the deterioration of his own muscular strength and coordination.

“It has helped enormously with the activities of daily living,” Mr. McCann said. “I could feel it almost immediately.”

And he credits the camaraderie and mutual encouragement of the group, plus the support he continually receives from family members--such as his wife Lari Jo Vickrey, also a UHS retiree--with keeping him motivated.

“My wife is the unsung hero in this,” he said. “She drives me to every class--Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”

At the end of each exercise session, participants gather in a circle, stretch their arms into the middle of the circle and, in a burst of empowered confidence, shout in unison:

“I am Rock Steady!”

Often sporting a T-shirt with those words as the inscription, Mr. McCann said he looks forward to every class and the strength each session gives him to forge ahead. He plans to stay with the program well into the future, fighting hard.

“I love Rock Steady and I love these people,” he said. “It’s made a huge difference in my life.”


TO LEARN MORE:

Rock Steady Boxing meets at the gym located at Deeley Physical Therapy, 709 Conklin Road, Conklin, N.Y. The fee is $50 per month. For more information, contact John Cappello at 760-4487 or SouthernTierNY.RSBaffiliate.com. For information about the Southern Tier Support Group of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association, contact Jim Nowik at 507-278-2138 or 507-396-1980.