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SOUTHAMPTON — DopaFit Inc., a Parkinson’s disease movement center, is known for helping people with Parkinson’s slow the progression of their disease with exercise and other non-pharmacological treatments. Those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease are often forced to stop doing the things they love. Many give up their passions, hobbies, and lose their sense of self. Limitless by DopaFit has been created to empower people with Parkinson’s disease to redefine their lives by giving them a chance to do something they once loved.

On Monday, April 5, Rick Burkhart, a current DopaFit fighter, will fly a plane with the help of Fly LUGU flight school at the Westfield Barnes Airport. Burkhart has not flown an airplane in more than 10 years since he was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Prior to his diagnosis, he was an avid pilot and owned a flight school at Westfield Barnes Airport. He often took cross-country flights, and even donated his time and planes to drop off much-needed supplies to remote areas of impoverished countries.

“Far too often, when people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they expect to be disabled within five years,” said Chad Moir, founder and CEO of DopaFit Inc. and the Limitless project. “This does not have to be the case. With exercise, eating healthy, and keeping a positive attitude, people with Parkinson’s disease can live a long and active life. Limitless by DopaFit is meant to help people with Parkinson’s continue to live their life without limits.”

DopaFit Inc. plans to offer the Limitless program on a quarterly basis and encourages people living with Parkinson’s disease to apply for their chance to live DopaFit’s motto, “Parkinson’s without limits.” For more information, visit www.dopafit.com or call (203) 828-7189.

Class of 2021

He Helps People with Parkinson’s Disease Live Healthier, More Confident Lives

Leah Martin Photography

Chad Moir calls his mother his greatest teacher.

“She really, truly lived by the mantra that you never look down on someone, and that you always stick your hand out to help them,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be put in a position where I can help people while honoring my mother, and I can do it in a fun and exciting way.”

He’s referring to DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center, the business he started six years ago as the culmination of a tragic event — the premature passing of his greatest teacher, who was stricken with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s and was gone five years after her diagnosis.

Moir took his mother’s death hard. “I fell into a bit of a depression,” he told BusinessWest when we first spoke with him two years ago. “I hated Parkinson’s disease and everything to do with it. I didn’t even want to hear the word ‘Parkinson’s.’ But one day, something clicked, and I decided I was going to use my resentment toward Parkinson’s in a positive way and start to fight back.”

Today, DopaFit members, all of whom are at various stages of the disease, engage in numerous forms of exercise, from cardio work to yoga; from spinning to punching bags, and much more. On one level, activities are designed to help Parkinson’s patients live a more active life by improving their mobility, gait, balance, and motor skills.

“It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed.”

But research has shown, Moir said, that it does more than that: exercise releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, slowing the progress of Parkinson’s symptoms.

“Exercise is the only proven method to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease,” he told BusinessWest. “It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed. The goal is for people not to progress, or progress slowly, but if we can reverse some of those symptoms, that’s a big win.”

Members are typically referred to Moir from their movement-disorder specialist, neurologist, or physical therapist. “A lot of times, for our older members, it can be one of their kids who finds us; their parent was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they want to do anything they can to help, and they come across us online.”

Whatever the case, Moir and his team will meet with the individual and often a family member and discuss symptoms, their story, and how DopaFit might help.

“We have about a 99% success rate of people who try it and stay,” he said. But getting in the door — or online, as the case may be in this challenging time — is only the beginning.

 

Recognizing a Need

Moir’s own beginnings in a career focused on this deadly disease was a half-marathon in New York City to raise some money for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. He ended up collecting about $6,000, and started to think about what else he could do for the Parkinson’s community.

Chad Moir says membership was climbing

Chad Moir says membership was climbing steadily before the pandemic, and it has been a challenge to keep everyone engaged, whether in person or virtually, over the past year.

While attending classes at American International College, he saw a need for a Parkinson’s exercise group in the area. “There is a lack of Parkinson’s services in general. I really, truly believed that if I built it, they would come. That was our motto, and I stuck to that motto through the hard times, and it certainly has brought us here. We thought there was a need, and we’ve proven there was a need.”

He started working with individuals in their homes, then opened the first DopaFit gym in Feeding Hills in 2015. He moved to the Eastworks building in Easthampton a year later, and then to the current location, at the Red Rock Plaza in Southampton, in 2018 — a site with more space, ample parking, and a handicapped-accessible entrance. He also launched a second, smaller DopaFit location in West Boylston.

When they first arrive at DopaFit, members undergo an assessment of where they are physically and where they would like to be in six months. Then they’re assigned to one of two exercise groups. One includes people who don’t need assistance getting in and out of chairs and can move about freely with no assistive equipment, like canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. The second group requires a little more assistance.

“With the group-exercise portion, that’s where we have to be very imaginative and come up with fun and different ways to work with you because there are different levels of disease progression,” he explained.

Programming has continued to expand. “Our goal is to provide every non-pharmalogical therapy that you can in one place for people with Parkinson’s disease,” Moir said. “So we have yoga, tai chi, our exercise classes and movement program, and the Art Cart.”

That latter piece, a nationally recognized creativity and movement program for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, was launched by Moir’s wife, Saba Shahid, who nominated him for the Difference Makers award.

The Southampton center is DopaFit’s third Western Mass. location, but Chad Moir envisions a larger space down the line, with more Parkinson’s treatment services in house.

“Chad is truly the definition of a Difference Maker,” Shahid wrote. “He has provided countless hours of free educational services for patients and assisted-living and nursing centers that provide support to people with Parkinson’s, and has spoken at a variety of seminars with the simple goal of spreading awareness about Parkinson’s and the importance of exercising for disease management. His dedication and love for others is seen in his daily efforts.”

Moir is always open to new modalities as well, such as a recent addition, ‘laughter yoga.’ A member brought the idea to him, and it turned out one of the practice’s leading instructors lives in East Longmeadow, and was happy to teach a class.

“Everybody loved it,” Moir said. “People said it made a difference that day, and in the days after, to be able to laugh again.”

Indeed, the past year has brought unforeseen stress to the lives of everyone, including business owners like Moir and the folks with Parkinson’s disease he serves.

“We had been growing exponentially prior to the pandemic; we had a little over 100 members, and we’d see about 80 of those members every week, at different sessions,” he recalled. And when COVID-19 shut down the economy, including DopaFit’s facilities, Moir had to pivot — fast.

“Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

He quickly moved to an online model, starting with prerecorded exercise videos, daily e-mails, and phone calls. Zoom classes followed, which were more engaging and interactive than the videos, and trainers could work with members to make sure they were doing everything correctly.

“We did our best to keep our members engaged,” he added, through efforts like webinars with movement-disorder specialists to make sure members stayed current with the latest information. “Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

While the West Boylston facility remains shuttered and programs are run completely virtually, DopaFit’s Easthampton site opened about four months ago to small, scaled-down classes — two groups of no more than four people each — who work out separated by distance and dividers, and all surfaces and equipment are sanitized between each use.

“People who come say they feel 10 times safer here than they do going to the grocery store,” Moir said.

Through it all, he had his worries about surviving such a difficult time.

“The rent didn’t stop. The space was closed, but the bills were still here. But we’re blessed with a tremendous community,” he said, noting that local groups ran fundraisers to support DopaFit, and he was able to keep the business in operation and pay employees through the pandemic. “You truly see the impact when it’s taken away. Even people who don’t come here but know what we do wanted this service to stay available to the people in this community.”

 

Moving Ahead

Through it all — the expanded membership, and then the obstacles posed by COVID-19 — DopaFit’s outreach in the community has only grown, Moir said. “We’ve made some great connections with the local physical therapists and neurologists in the area, which has helped tremendously. We are now well-known as a very viable and necessary option for someone with Parkinson’s disease.

“When it comes to being innovative and trying new things, that is something we will always do,” he added. “The world is ever-changing, and there are so many great people who do so many great things that can help someone with Parkinson’s disease.”

With that in mind, the next goal is a larger, standalone building that offers not just a big exercise room, but plenty of rooms for other services, from education to support groups to social work. In short, Moir wants to take what he’s learned in the past six years and build a truly one-stop destination for people with Parkinson’s disease to access the resources they need.

Some things he’s learned have been unexpected — like mastering Zoom.

“I helped so many people navigate Zoom, many of them older people,” he said. “I figure, if this doesn’t work out, I can go to Zoom and work for their technical support. I’ve got that down.”

Fortunately for so many, his day job seems to be working out just fine, despite the recent challenges. And he’s grateful his members have a place where they can come and, well, just be themselves.

“It pains me to hear someone stopped talking to their friends because ‘I don’t want them to pity me.’ Or, ‘we used to go out to dinner every Thursday, but I stopped going because I shake too much and don’t want people looking at me.’

“But after spending time here with other people with Parkinson’s disease, they come back and say, ‘you know what? I felt confident to go out and have dinner with my friends, and I felt better than I’ve felt in 10 years,’” he said. “So the exercise is a beneficial part of this; it can physically make someone better. But being able to feel better and be more confident gives them so much empowerment in other ways.”

That’s yet another difference Moir wants to make in people’s lives, as he continues to honor the legacy of one great teacher.

“Knowing that I can make a difference in someone’s life, just a little bit of difference, means the world to me,” he said. “It’s the fuel that keeps me going through the day. And that we’ve been able to figure out how to do it on a bigger scale is just very exciting.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

The Power of Movement

Chad Moir turned his resentment against Parkinson’s disease into a chance to help others fighting the disease that took his mother.

Chad Moir turned his resentment against Parkinson’s disease into a chance to help others fighting the disease that took his mother.

As they don boxing gloves and pound away, with various levels of force, at punching bags suspended from the ceiling, the late-morning crowd at this Southampton gym looks a lot like a group exercise class at a typical fitness center.

Except that most of them are older than the usual gym crowd. Oh, and all of them are battling Parkinson’s disease.

“A lot of them have never boxed before in their lives, and now they get to put on gloves and punch something,” said Chad Moir, owner of DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Southampton. “Some are hesitant at first, but usually the hesitant ones are the ones who get into it the most.”

Tricia Enright started volunteering at DopaFit before joining Moir’s team as a fitness trainer.

“I just fell in love with the people,” she told BusinessWest. “I absolutely love my job, and I don’t think many people can say that. But you come here, and they inspire you in so many different ways — they walk in here with all these things they’re dealing with and get in front of these bags, and they’re pushing it and fighting. It’s so amazing to see. It makes me want to come to work every day, which is not something I’ve experienced before.”

Tricia Enright says she’s inspired not only by members’ physical progress, but by the support they give each other as well.

Tricia Enright says she’s inspired not only by members’ physical progress, but by the support they give each other as well.

It’s not just boxing. Members at DopaFit, all of whom are at various stages of Parkinson’s, engage in numerous forms of exercise, from cardio work to yoga to spinning, and more. On one level, activities are designed to help Parkinson’s patients live a more active life by improving their mobility, gait, balance, and motor skills.

But research has shown, Moir said, that it does more than that: Exercise releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, slowing the progress of Parkinson’s symptoms.

Moir has seen those symptoms first-hand, by watching his mother, stricken with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s, decline quickly and pass away five years after her diagnosis.

“She went through a hard diagnostic process,” he said. “There were probably about three to four years where we knew something was wrong; she was going to the doctor, but they couldn’t figure out what it was. There are symptoms of apathy and depression and anxiety that come along with Parkinson’s, and those manifested first. So they were trying to treat it as a mental-health issue, but Parkinson’s was underlying everything the whole time. Eventually she got her diagnosis, and from there she deteriorated pretty quickly.”

Moir said he took his mother’s death hard. “I fell into a bit of a depression. I hated Parkinson’s disease and everything to do with it. I didn’t even want to hear the word Parkinson’s. But one day, something clicked, and I decided I was going to use my resentment toward Parkinson’s in a positive way and start to fight back.”

He used a half-marathon in New York City to raise some money for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, and ended up collecting about $6,000 — an exciting tally, as it was the first time he’d ever raised money for a cause. And he started to think about what else he could do for the Parkinson’s community.

“At that point, I was a personal trainer, and the more I looked into it, the more I found out that exercise is the best thing someone with Parkinson’s can do. All the research shows that it can slow the progress of some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s, so I started researching what people with Parkinson’s could do through exercise.”

He started working with individuals in their homes, but a visit to a support-group meeting in Southwick was the real game changer. “I asked the people there if they wanted a group exercise class, and they said ‘yes,’ so I started one. I think we had four people at first.”

These days, a visitor to DopaFit will typically see around 25 people working out. “Really, it’s set up like a regular gym would be — aerobic training, running, dumbbells,” Moir said.

“At that point, I was a personal trainer, and the more I looked into it, the more I found out that exercise is the best thing someone with Parkinson’s can do. All the research shows that it can slow the progress of some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s, so I started researching what people with Parkinson’s could do through exercise.”

The difference is the clientele — and the progress they’re making toward maintaining as active a life as they can.

Small Steps

The first DopaFit gym was launched in Feeding Hills in 2015, but moved to the Eastworks building in Easthampton a year later. This year’s move to the Red Rock Plaza in Southampton was a bid for more space; ample parking right outside the door and a handicapped-accessible entrance are pluses as well.

Meanwhile, a second DopaFit location in West Boylston — Moir lives in Worcester — boasts about 20 members.

When the business was starting out, Moir was studying occupational therapy at American International College. “That’s a grueling program, so I had to make a choice — and I don’t love school as much as I love this. The deal with my wife was that I could leave the OT program, but I’ve got to finish my degree.”

Today, he’s back at AIC, working toward a degree in public health. “They’ve been instrumental and supportive of what I’m doing here, creating a business and working with this population,” he said. “Any time you’re helping the public with a healthcare need, it becomes public health.”

The Southampton gym runs classes four days a week — exercise groups on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and a yoga session on Wednesday. “Most people come two or three times a week, but some come every day,” Moir said, adding that members with jobs often make time for exercise before or after their work schedule.

Individuals are referred to DopaFit by their therapists, neurologists, movement-disorder specialists, and family members as well.

“Some go to their neurologist, who says, ‘you need to exercise,’ and they find out about us, exercise here for six months, go back to the neurologist, and their scores are better than they’ve been. When the neurologist finds out they’re going to DopaFit, they reach out and start referring more people. The proof is in the pudding.

“Exercise is the best medicine,” he added. “Your pills are great because they help with the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but when the medicine wears off, the symptoms come back right away. The exercise helps prolong some of that, so you’re less symptomatic for a longer period of time.”

When they first arrive at DopaFit, members undergo an assessment of where they are physically and where they would like to be in six months. Then they’re assigned to one of two exercise groups. No Limits is made up of people who don’t need assistance getting in and out of chairs and can move about freely with no assistive equipment, like canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. The second group, Southpaw, requires a little more assistance.

“The exciting thing is, some of those people come to that class with canes and eventually come in with no canes, and eventually they’re in the next class, running and jumping around,” Moir said. “Especially for someone who’s been sedentary for a while, it really makes a huge improvement.”

He said studies have shown that Parkinson’s patients who have been sedentary can show improvement in their symptoms simply by getting up and doing the dishes or another minor task each day, just because they’re up and moving. “If you take someone sedentary and get them moving in a training facility, sometimes the outcomes are almost immeasurable.”

Not to mention that exercise can be fun, Enright said.

“You get these people on the floor with a hockey stick and a ball, it brings them back to when they were 8,” she said. “They’re spinning and jogging, and it’s just so neat to see what it brings out in them. It’s such a testament for what this does for them. They’re pretty inspiring.”

Special Connections

Between the business and his studies, Moir doesn’t have a lot of time to stand still, but he said he occasionally allows himself to step back and let the potential of DopaFit sink in.

“I’ve been so deeply involved in it that I forget how special this really is,” he told BusinessWest, and not just because of members’ physical progress, but their growing confidence.

“A lot of times, they’re leery of going out to eat because they can’t eat a bowl of soup, or their food’s going to be shaking off the fork. When they come here, they don’t have to worry about that, or they talk about that with each other and tell each other, ‘oh this is how I get around that.’ Or, ‘when I go to this restaurant, I order this because it’s easier to eat.’”

Those conversations and the social support they gain at DopaFit hopefully translate to greater confidence in other areas of their lives, Moir said. “That support system is huge, and it’s special.”

Enright agreed. “They’re such a close group, and the support they receive is as important as the exercise, and they come for that too. But the physical piece really is amazing, to watch them slow the progression of the disease because of what they’re doing here.”

She said members are excited when they visit their neurologist, and the doctor is pleasantly surprised with how they’re managing their symptoms. “Exercising gives you a lot of confidence in your physical ability anyway, so that’s really cool to watch. They’re amazing.”

In addition to the exercise and yoga, DopaFit also hosts the Smile Through Art Workshop once a month, an art program for individuals with Parkinson’s disease that’s run by Moir’s wife, Saba Shahid.

“It’s even more gratifying knowing that, every day, I get to honor my mother. What’s happening here is a living testament to the values she instilled in me.”

“It’s the only art program in the country designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s,” he explained. “We do different art projects that work on different symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, like tremors. Or we’ll do a workshop on handwriting.”

One goal of that particular class is, simply, the increased independence someone gets by being able to sign a check or do any number of other tasks that most others take for granted. “When you give that back to someone, it’s another barrier they feel they can successfully navigate in society.”

Moir has certainly navigated his own path since those days when he was so angry about his mother’s death that he couldn’t even think about Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s even more gratifying knowing that, every day, I get to honor my mother,” he said. “What’s happening here is a living testament to the values she instilled in me.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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