By Villeneuve, Melissa on August 25, 2017.
Lethbridge citizens can soon “punch out Parkinson’s” with a new boxing class designed to combat effects of the long-term neurodegenerative disease.
The Parkinson Association of Alberta is teaming up with the Lethbridge Boxing Club to run a six-week “dopamine boxing” program.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for sending signals to the brain that control movement. Parkinson’s causes the brain to slowly stop producing dopamine. Over time, with less and less dopamine, a person has less ability to regulate their body movements and emotions. While each person’s symptoms are unique, many experience tremours, rigidity and impaired balance. There is no known cause or cure, and over 100,000 Canadians are afflicted.
Research has shown that high-intensity workouts, such as boxing, are proven to stimulate the production of dopamine, which can reduce symptoms and slow the progression of the disease allowing people with Parkinson’s to lead happier lives.
Similar boxing programs are held in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer. Now they will be offered in Lethbridge for the first time.
Christopher Campbell, assistant coach of Lethbridge Boxing Club and head coach of Lethbridge Dopamine Boxing, said the program is based on “tried and tested” curriculum, developed alongside the Red Deer Boxing Club.
Participants will learn how to wrap their hands to prepare for a match, work on their hand-to-eye co-ordination and throw punches at the heavy bag.
“The main thing here is we are treating them as boxers, not as patients,” said Campbell. “The neat thing about boxing is nobody is really good at it when they first start. Over the course of six weeks they’re going to learn how to jab, how to step, how to duck out of the way of a punch.”
They won’t learn how to spar each other, but will have a chance to throw a few punches at their coach, he said.
The Lethbridge Boxing Club and Parkinson Association of Alberta held an open house on Tuesday. There has been great demand for a program like this within the community, said Alicia Visser, client services co-ordinator with Parkinson Association of Alberta.
“A lot of research has gone into boxing and Parkinson’s lately and they’ve found a lot of amazing results,” she said. “Besides all the wonderful things that the physicality of boxing with Parkinson’s does, we’ve found just magic in the relationships of people connecting to one another.
“Just the stories we’ve heard… I’m really excited to get my own stories to share about the boxing program in Lethbridge.”
Jon Doan, an associate professor specializing in kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge, hopes to do some research with the program. His goal is to examine what the boxing program can help people maintain in terms of function and quality of life, and if there are any improvements.
“Vigorous exercise in general has become quite popular as a neuro-protective or neuro-therapeutic treatment for people with Parkinson’s, and boxing is one that really seems to have taken off,” said Doan. “I think part of the appeal is sort of standing the stereotype on its head – you’re battling back against or punching out Parkinson’s. It’s really got an empowering mindset to it and we think that’s the foundation of where it starts.”
Vigorous exercise helps maintain brain health by releasing neurotransmitters, and developing or maintaining neural connections, he explained.
“And research around these boxing programs shows that certainly seems to be the case,” he said, “that people participating in these boxing programs are enjoying things like improved balance, better walking, better upper extremity function, increased quality of life…”
They also find it easier to manage daily functions such as dressing, feeding or driving themselves, which helps to maintain their independence.
Doan agrees the connection with others and camaraderie can only benefit those in the program. People are more likely to get some exercise if they have a friend to keep them motivated and accountable.
“Other groups we’ve had a chance to visit in Calgary, Red Deer and Kelowna, and other colleagues we’ve talked to have said this real group mentality does take hold. This don’t miss a session, don’t miss a dose, as they say, of your exercise meds. They enjoy interacting with each other,” said Doan.
“They were a team of boxers. They liked to tease each other, they liked to exercise together, and it really maintained this great atmosphere.”
Jean Madill was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago. At the time, all she knew about the disease was that a famous actor also had it.
“I knew nothing about Parkinson’s except Michael J. Fox,” she said. “So I started to research and then I got very scared. Then I thought ‘you’ve handled a lot of stuff in your lifetime including cancer, you can handle this.'”
After battling breast cancer 15 years ago, Madill knew she wouldn’t give up another fight. Madill began to do a lot of research and started looking for activities because she learned exercise helps people with Parkinson’s. She heard others were finding success through boxing, so she and another group member helped lobby for a local program with the Parkinson Association.
“I was reading about how it made people feel and how it improved their motor actions, their balance and so on. And kept the brain going because the co-ordinating of the activity along with the actual thinking part,” she said.
One year later and the program has come to fruition. Madill hopes the program will help her improve her balance and co-ordination, which she’s losing with Parkinson’s every few months or years that go by. She’s also looking forward to the social aspect, the camaraderie, among others fighting the same battle.
“We have a great support group here. Great people. And I think from what I’ve seen and read with other organizations, it certainly helps bond those people together.”
On a broader scale, Madill hopes to raise public awareness and understanding about Parkinson’s.
“The sad thing is, it’s the second most prevalent disease in Canada next to Alzheimer’s, but nobody knows that,” she said. “Here in Alberta there’s over 10,000 people estimated as having Parkinson’s and it affects so much of your life – not just the co-ordination, not just the balance – there’s so many other symptoms and I think, it being a disease that literally can affect every system within your body from your vision to your speaking to your walking to internal activities, it’s a little overwhelming when you’re diagnosed with it.”
Madill knows she can handle the challenge. She credits her husband of 43 years and the support group with helping her accept the diagnosis and navigate the life changes.
The Boxing for Parkinson’s program begins Sept. 12. Classes are three times per week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday) from 11 a.m. to noon.
Space is limited to 10 participants, however if there is greater demand they will offer additional sessions.
To register, contact the Parkinson Association of Alberta office at 403-317-7710 or the Lethbridge Boxing Club at (403) 894-1754.
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