How boxing helps Parkinson's patients shake, rattle and roll with the punches

Boxing can be punishing sport that takes a heavy toll but some people with Parkinson's Disease in St. John's say it has improved their lives.

They've created a supportive community and improved their health

Robert Emberley is among a dozen or so people with Parkinson's disease who train at Boxfit in St. John's. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Boxing can be a punishing sport that takes a heavy toll but some people in St. John's who have Parkinson's disease say it has improved their lives.

Every Wednesday morning more than a dozen of them meet to lift weights, hit the heavy punching bags and throw jabs, undercuts and hooks.

The sense of community we have here is fantastic.- Robert Emberley

"It gives us purpose," said class member Robert Emberley, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's eight years ago..

"There's a group of us who have the same complaint and we get to chat and our spouses get to chat and the sense of community we have here is fantastic."

Boxfit instrutor Carrie Hayward leads members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Parkinson Society at a boxing class in St. John's. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Parkinson's is a disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Its onset is gradual — usually beginning with a tremor.

As the disease progresses it often causes stiffness and slowing of movement. There is no cure but medication is believed to slow its progress.

Emberley said the day he was diagnosed was difficult.

"My wife and I went down to the car and we were both in shock and she said, 'Well, the doctor could have said you had cancer. and you've got two weeks to live. We've got what we've got,' and she did use the term we," he said, tearing up.

"She said, 'We are going to have to do what we can and make the best of it.' So with her, I've found out that a positive attitude is amazing and it works for us."

Exercise as therapy

The executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Parkinson Society says research suggests that regular exercise, like boxing, may also slow the disease's progression.

A group of patients boxes every week to help get their muscles strong, to fight their disease 2:21

"There is extensive research that demonstrates how beneficial exercise is for people living with Parkinson's for both the short term and long term," said Derek Staubitzer.

"So the more you exercise the longer you can put off the serious symptoms of Parkinson's."

In St. John's The Parkinson Society offers weekly exercise classes including Dancing for Life, a walking and running club and it's planning to offer yoga classes soon, too.

Robert Emberley worked in Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil industry before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Robert Emberley, who worked offshore in the oil industry before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, doesn't doubt the classes are helping him.

"Our boxing instructor tells us that all of us who have been here have vastly improved which is pretty much unheard of with Parkinson's. Usually once you've got Parkinson's you start going downhill."

Emberley said the unsung hero of this story is Staubitzer, who was behind the decision to break away from Parkinson Canada and set up a provincial group.

It means the provincial group has more money to establish programs like the boxing classes.

Derek Staubitzer is the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Parkinson Society. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"We decided that we would become independent so every single penny that is donated goes right into our programs and services," said Staubizer.

Ready to fight

Boxfit  instructor Carrie Hayward jokes her Parkinson's group will be ready to fight in the big ring by September but she knows they are really there to have fun and maybe improve their health.

She said it's been good for her too.

Carrie Hayward says she looks forward to her weekly Parkinson's boxing class. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

They are great people. They all have great personalities and they are a fun bunch so I can absolutely joke around with them," said Hayward.

"So I absolutely love it and I love seeing them every Wednesday morning."

The Newfoundland and Labrador Parkinson Society is planning to hold its fourth annual Shake, Rattle & Roll Gala for Parkinson's in May. Comedian Mark Critch will host the St. John's event.