‘It’s given me hope’: Toronto boxing program helping people fight Parkinson’s disease

Click to play video: 'Rock Steady Boxing at Undisputed giving the uppercut to Parkinson’s disease'
Rock Steady Boxing at Undisputed giving the uppercut to Parkinson’s disease
WATCH ABOVE: You may remember seeing Muhammad Ali battle Parkinson's disease his entire post-boxing life, but now there's a boxing program that's helping people fight the disease. Minna Rhee reports – Mar 22, 2019

A 69-year-old woman on the speed bag and a man who needed a wheelchair less than a year ago repeatedly hitting the heavy bag — this isn’t your ordinary boxing training.

Punching steadies tremors and footwork here improves balance. You see, all of the participants in Rock Steady Boxing at Undisputed have Parkinson’s disease.

“Everything in Rock Steady Boxing combats what Parkinson’s does. The big movements, the posture, standing upright when you’re boxing, the breathing out, the yelling all serve a purpose,” said Lita Mae Button, head coach of the program.

A former registered nurse who had been working in geriatrics, palliative care and mental health, the professional boxer realized that her patients could benefit from many of the powerful movements used in training instead of just being handed pills to take.

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She flew down to Indianapolis to became certified in the Rock Steady Boxing program and opened an affiliate to begin teaching the non-contact sport in Toronto.

“I’ve been a huge believer that movement is medicine and watching people’s lives transform before my eyes — it’s really something,” Button said.

Ron King was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago.

“I used to use a cane to go everywhere, now I keep it in the car. (I) only reach for it if it’s really icy or I’m going out for a long walk. I can spend more time playing with my grandchildren,” said the 72-year-old property manager.

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Every year, 6,600 Canadians are diagnosed with Parkinson’s — a degenerative neurological disease.

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Paul Sumner was diagnosed a decade ago and claimed his symptoms have reversed thanks to the Rock Steady Boxing at Undisputed coupled with another program. He said he does not take any medication for the disease at all.

“It’s given me hope, which is a big thing, because when you go see the neurologist, they tell you to take these pills and that it’s only ever going to get worse — not better,” he said.

“Coming here gives hope. Last May I was in a wheelchair. I was more hunched over, shaking, couldn’t get out of bed really. I would fall over.”

You’d never guess it watching the 55-year-old former antique dealer running up and down the gym and beating the heavy bag, hard. Button said Sumner is an inspiration.

“Just this past autumn, you could barely understand what Paul would say. His speech was inaudible. Paul speaks like you and I now. He trains five days a week,” she said.

Terry Cabral’s right hand used to shake so badly she would hide her hand while taking notes in front of other people.

“It was chicken scratch. It was just awful I was so embarrassed,” she said, adding she can now write her name in beautiful cursive letters.

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Parkinson’s disease affects one in every 500 people in Canada. Over 100,000 Canadians are living with Parkinson’s right now.

Rock Steady Boxing is a non-contact sport, but the female fighters raising money for the program at this year’s big ticket event at Crystal Fountain in Markham on April 4 will be giving Parkinson’s disease the upper cut with full contact.

Tickets are $120 and proceeds will help subsidize low income people who sign up for the program, as well as pay for an air conditioner to be installed so training can continue in the summer months.

The fighters training for the big ticket event are not fighting for a big title, bragging rights, or a giant purse — they’re fighting for hope.

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