Thinking inside the boxing ring as therapy for Parkinson’s



    “Good, Vito, good!” says boxing teacher Joey DeMalavez to Vito Cosmo as he practices punching.

    Cosmo is training at DeMalavez’s gym in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. But this isn’t Cosmo’s first rodeo.

    “When you’re born with a name like Vito Cosmo, and you’re raised in Central Bucks County, you know, you have to learn how to fight,” he says. “It’s old hat.”

    But these days, Cosmo is not fighting schoolyard bullies — he’s up against a different opponent. Back in 2012, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

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    About one million Americans have the progressive neurological disease that affects balance, posture, speech and movement.

    Cosmo is part of an inaugural boxing class for people with the disease in Philadelphia. The curriculum was developed at Rock Steady Boxing in Indianapolis.

    “They call me the Michael J. Fox of Philadelphia because I’ve done so much media work,” he says with a laugh.

    While Cosmo is quick with a one-liner and acts tough, this is his first class, and it shows. He’s sweating and struggling.

    The bell rings.

    “Hold on,” says DeMalavez, and tells the class the take “10 seconds … we’re union!”

    Training in the face of a tough disease

    DeMalavez, a former pro fighter, owns Joltin Jabs.

    Covered in tattoos, he loves to joke around and takes a light-hearted, but firm approach to the sport.

    Before Cosmo could sign up for the class, he went through a long assessment testing balance and coordination with DeMalavez and retired physical therapist Carol Leiper. Leiper is the vice president of the Parkinson Council, which sponsors the program.

    She says boxing is good for people with the Parkinson’s because the specific movements address different symptoms.

    “Each time Joey gets them to throw a punch or a combination of punches, they are actually gaining more flexibility.

    “All of the footwork that becomes so important for boxing — they’ll be taking short steps — all of that helps with their balance and anticipating postural challenges,” she says.

    Perhaps the most noticeable side effect of the class is the boost in morale.

    “You’re combating a secondary effect of Parkinson’s which is, ‘I’m not going to do very much today,'” Leiper says.

    A small powerhouse

    “You all right, Joan?” DeMalavez asks a woman with a small frame.  Joan Pilallis comes to box every week, and different people in the class look out for her.

    “I think it can easily be turned into a source of power for people,” she says in between sets of exercise.

    Every week, her husband, George, comes to watch her box.

    “Yeah, I’m her cornerman,” he says with a laugh.

    The boxing class has made him extremely proud of his wife.

    “I have a younger brother who did a lot of boxing, so I sent a video of my wife doing the speed bag, and he got back to me and said, ‘Joan, you look great, most people don’t know how hard that is,'” Pilallis says.

    Before the class winds down, another man helps a struggling Vito Cosmo with pointers at the speed bag. Cosmo seems to be finding his way.

    “I’m getting there slowly but surely, finding my rhythm.”

    He’s in good company; there’s a strong spirit of community in this gym — of people supporting each other through tough exercise — and sharing the burden of living with a tough disease.

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