It’s early on a Monday morning at Westwood Health & Fitness, and 74-year-old Howie Kule is wrapping up an intense training session with boxing instructor Ron O’Neill.
“Hit with power. Hit with everything you’ve got,” O’Neill shouts, the slap of Kule’s forceful strikes against his trainer’s mitts reverberating throughout the workout studio.
Outfitted in patriotic boxing gloves, Kule responds steadily to O’Neill’s direction as he prompts different boxing combinations.
“One, one, two,” O’Neill yells, as Kule performs the matching jab, jab, cross.
From the outside, it might seem like an ordinary tableau. But these sessions with O’Neill are more than just a retired man’s effort to fight off advancing old age. For Kule, they are a means of survival.
Fighting the disease
It was more than nine years ago when Kule’s wife, Linda, first noticed a change in her husband, to whom she has been married for 52 years. Always a big personality, friendly and warm with a booming voice, Kule became quiet. He lost his sense of smell and was easily confused.
Then one day, Linda noticed a tremor in her husband’s finger — a common sign of Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative nervous system disorder that affects movement.
“I kept watching him, and as the shakes got more significant, I said to Howie, ‘You’ve got Parkinson’s. You better go to a neurologist,’ ” she said. “He was a pretty clear-cut case.”
When Kule was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Linda said, she and the Kules’ daughter, Elyse Zitomer, decided they would do everything in their power to fight the disease.
The first step was finding Dr. Fiona Gupta, a neurologist specializing in movement disorders at the North Jersey Brain & Spine Center in Oradell.
Although Parkinson’s patients present in different ways, said Gupta, their symptoms are caused by a deficiency in dopamine, a chemical in the brain that controls how people move and how they feel emotionally.
Until the past decade, the doctor said the medical community was focused on Parkinson’s being “motor, motor, motor” — causing stiffness, slowness and tremors — but non-motor symptoms such as depression, lack of motivation, anxiety, sleep disturbance and cognitive issues are just as important to address.
Gupta recommends that patients adopt lifestyle changes such as healthy eating, sleeping well, maintaining a social life and, perhaps most important, exercising.
An exercise regimen is vital for Parkinson’s patients, says Gupta, because of something called “neuroprotection.” Exercise floods the brain with good things, such as dopamine, antioxidants and amino acids, she explained, which help restore the brain and allow patients to function on a day-to-day basis. Flexibility, gait, balance and fluidity of movement improve with exercise, Gupta said, and so does mood.
“Right now all of our therapies for Parkinson’s are focused on symptomatic treatment,” she said. “The only thing that I can say for certain that slows down the progression of the disease is exercise.”
Since his diagnosis, Kule, who lives in Upper Saddle River, has been motivated to do everything he can to prevent his symptoms from worsening.
“I want to stay alive,” he says.
When he first wakes around 6 a.m., Linda Kule says, his movements are slow and shuffling. By the time they arrive at the gym at 7:30 a.m., his medication has kicked in and he confidently strides inside, she said. But it’s not just the medicine — Kule says a sense of euphoria comes over him as he walks into the building.