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Boxing classes help improve quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s disease

Boxing classes help improve quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s disease
WATCH: People living with Parkinson's disease are seeing improvements in strength, balance and agility after taking part in Rock Steady Boxing classes.

Retired nurse Barb Bender first noticed her left hand shaking eight years ago.

Four years later, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“I heard there were good supports, in Saskatoon and Regina, so I looked that up,” said Bender. “You just need one person to help you.”

READ MORE: When Life Gives You Parkinson’s podcast: Empowering people with Parkinson’s

Now, the 71-year-old has an entire room of friends — 20, in fact — living with varying levels of the chronic disease, who take part in weekly boxing classes to help ease their symptoms.

John Dawes (left) receives boxing instruction from Rock Steady coach Patrick Bernat.
John Dawes (left) receives boxing instruction from Rock Steady coach Patrick Bernat. Daniella Ponticelli / Global News

“I am stronger and my balance is a lot better,” said Bender. “I even can open pickle jars by myself, which I never could for a long time.”

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Rock Steady Boxing classes have been offered across North America for years, but came to the University of Regina in March 2019. The program tailors functional exercises to each person in the class.

“Things like chair sit-to-stands, to replicate getting in and out of the chair or in and out of a car, some type of a pushing and pulling exercise to replicate either pushing or pulling a door open,” said Patrick Bernat, one of the clinical exercise physiologists coaching the U of R program.

After a warm-up, some agility and cardio work, the boxing gloves come on.

“It’s an amazing experience. I feel much better physically and mentally, the social aspect is incredible,” said John Dawes, a participant in the program.

Bernat said the sport checks all the boxes for areas where those living with Parkinson’s need additional help.

“It target the things that medications doesn’t necessarily improve. So things like muscle strength, the ability to produce force quickly, so muscle power, cardiovascular capacity,” he said.

For 73-year-old John Dawes, Rock Steady took him from apathetic, to athletic.

“I can run,” he laughed. “I never thought I could run around a gym or across a gym more than once, but this program you’ll run across a gym about six times a session.”

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Rock Steady Boxing coach Carmen Agar works with a new member on Jan. 15, 2020.
Rock Steady Boxing coach Carmen Agar works with a new member on Jan. 15, 2020. Daniella Ponticelli / Global News

Dawes said the boxing classes have helped him feel better than he has since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s eight years ago.

“It’s an amazing experience. I feel much better physically and mentally, the social aspect is incredible,” said Dawes.

The group meets three times a week for their one-hour sessions, with many arriving early to chat and catch up.

Darwin Mott throws punches during a Rock Steady Boxing class on Jan. 15, 2020.
Darwin Mott throws punches during a Rock Steady Boxing class on Jan. 15, 2020. Daniella Ponticelli / Global News

“The relationships and the camaraderie that’s been established here is something that we saw right off the bat,” said Bernat.

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“They build off each other, they compete against each other, they help each other out — it’s super, super cool to see and I think it’s a huge strength of the program.”

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

Bender and Dawes both said they would like to see more people living with the chronic disease come out to try a class.

“Don’t feel intimidated by this. It’s a program [for] people with different levels of Parkinson’s — have the courage to step forward and try it,” Dawes said.

The classes are held Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 10:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., at the U of R’s Centre for Kinesiology, Health and Sport. Anyone interested in trying can register online.