Putting on boxing gloves and punching a heavy bag has allowed a small group of people fighting Parkinson’s disease regain some of what the disease has taken away.
The 12-person group, ranging in age from 50 to 80, practices boxing drills and exercises twice a week at the Arashi-do Martial Arts Gym in Red Deer.
They partner off and move around each other. They punch bags and even bubbles, but they don’t punch each other.
Kim Harder was diagnosed with the disease in 2013, but said he started feeling the symptoms as long ago as 2000.
“It gets you psyched up to get some physical fitness and get back into shape,” said Harder. “There’s something about getting back into shape and being able to hit something.
“You get pretty frustrated, upset and anxious and there’s just something about the release when you can hit a bag and it doesn’t hit you back.”
Harder said in the last six weeks he has seen an improvement in his balance, his strength and his dexterity.
Parkinson’s is a long-term disorder of the central nervous system. Symptoms develop slowly over time and often include shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement and difficulty with walking. Thinking and behavioural problems may occur and dementia is common in later stages of the disease.
Parkinson’s Alberta and the Red Deer Boxing Club work with the gym to deliver the program.
Harder was late to the session because he had to visit the cancer centre for his last Eligard injection. He said the news was positive and he doesn’t have to go back for one year.
Within minutes of arriving at the gym, half an hour late, Harder went straight to a heavy bag and began pounding away trying to make up for lost time.
He has found hope in the program and has come to look forward to Mondays and Wednesdays at the gym.
“It gets the signals in your brain firing again and gets you off of that feeling of ‘woe is me,’” said Harder. “It’s a disease, but it’s not a death sentence. This is the first time it has given me something to get excited about.
“I’ve been down, pretty depressed over the last four years. I understand where I’m at and where I plan on going and I see hope in the future now. I’m looking forward to this program continuing.”
He isn’t alone either. Parkinson Alberta client services co-ordinator said a big boost to the program is having the group exercising together. It gives a shared experience to people who face similar challenges.
Diagnosed in July 2015, but she may have had the disease for seven years prior, Cathy Fleury has found hope from the high-intensity workout the boxing program offers.
“When I go home, I’m invigorated for two hours like I never had Parkinson’s,” said Fleury, who works with a trainer at a gym in Red Deer as well to help her with her fight with Parkinson’s disease.
“She’s noticed an improvement in everything we’ve worked on in over a year since I started boxing six weeks ago. I can lift more weights; I have more freedom of movement. It has given me hope.”
In six weeks, Fleury’s back and core feel better and stronger and she can get out of chairs and cars much easier than she could.
It’s the fast and vigorous movement that Parkinson Alberta calls disease modifying. Cairns said they’ve heard amazing results from patients.
“Boxing is natural movement and it requires twisting of the torso and swinging of the arms, these are the motions people with Parkinson’s need to get back,” said Cairns.
The fast and vigorous movement helps increase dopamine receptors in the brain and the production of dopamine. Cairns said this spills over into improved quality of life for those with the disease.
“Parkinson’s involves both a cognition and movement disorder,” said Cairns. “This moving around, breathing properly, switching side-to-side is a very cognitive area. It’s more than motion, there’s a lot of cognition involved here too.”
At the heart of the program, boxing coach Doug Rowe said the idea started while he was watching a CBC mini-documentary on Rock Steady, a U.S. program the boxercise one in Red Deer is modeled on. The program, aimed directly at helping people with Parkinson’s disease, is the first of its kind in Alberta.
Carol Yamada said she used to fall a lot, but since she started the boxing program has helped her feel more secure.
“I still have a long ways to go, but I’ve definitely seen a difference,” said Yamada. “I’ve been told my speech has improved, I had problems with stuttering and talking.
“But, just generally, emotionally too. I’d wake up in the morning and not want to do anything. I just felt apathetic, which is a problem with Parkinson’s. I forced myself to come here and after five minutes I start to feel better. As soon as I start punching, I have a big grin on my face. It changes my mood for the whole day.”
Terry Williamson was diagnosed 18 years ago and his Parkinson’s has advanced. He has walking issues and tremors, but a smile on his face as he popped bubbles with his boxing gloves.
“The boxing is helping my balance, movement and strength,” he said.
He is headed for deep brain stimulation surgery in Edmonton to help him deal with his Parkinson’s symptoms. Two neurostimulators, similar to pacemakers, will be put on his brain and a pacemaker will be attached to his heart.
“I’m hoping it will send me back about 10 years ago, it’s possible,” said Williamson. “I’m a bit nervous, it’s a bit scary when you’re sticking things in your brain. But the end result is worth the risk.”
The 12-person program was a pilot and Parkinson Alberta is working to begin a new program in September open to people with the disease. For more information on the program visit www.parkinsonalberta.ca or call 403-346-4463.
“Working out with someone who is fighting the same disease (that) you are makes a huge difference,” said Fleury. “We’re all fighting the same battle. You better be a fighter.”