Punching Parkinson's: Boxing training helps patients battle disease

When Peter Leville pummels the punching bag — his fists strong but unsteady — thoughts of Parkinson’s disease never enter his mind.

'For the time that I'm here, I forget that I have Parkinson's'

Peter Leville says boxing helps him forget about his diagnosis and cope with some of his physical symptoms. (CBC Edmonton )

When Peter Levielle pummels the punching bag — his fists strong but unsteady — thoughts of Parkinson's disease never enter his mind.

The Edmonton man has turned to boxing hoping to gain an upper hand on a disease that ravages the body, attacks the central nervous system, weakens muscles and causes uncontrollable tremors.

He's one of more than 20 people with Parkinson's who regularly train at the Avenue Boxing Club on 118th Avenue as part of the Fighting Parkinson's program.

"For the time that I'm here, I forget that I have Parkinson's," said Levielle. "And when I'm leaving and walking out that door, I feel like I'm 20 years younger. I feel rejuvenated and ready to take on the world."

'It gets you moving and thinking at the same time'

Parkinson Alberta and Alberta Boxing partnered to create the classes. Participants train every Monday and Wednesday morning with some of Edmonton's best boxing coaches.

"I'm here sometimes an hour before the classes start, and sometimes it's locked up and I have to wait," Levielle said as he took a break from the punching bag. "But that's how much I enjoy the classes."
A new program is helping people with Parkinson's disease by teaching them how to box. 2:20

The program is designed as a form of physical therapy, but Levielle said the fancy footwork and punching combos also keep his mind sharp.

"You're not just standing there throwing punches mindlessly, you're thinking about where you're throwing them and how you're throwing that punch," he said. "It gets you moving and thinking at the same time.

"I think it's the expending of the energy, getting rid of some frustrations on the heavy bag, and not having to worry about getting hit back. That's the important thing."

The idea to use boxing to treat Parkinson's symptoms was inspired by a U.S.-based initiative dubbed Rock Steady Boxing, which launched in 2006.

'It makes me feel really good'

Boxing is considered the ideal form of physical exercise for people with Parkinson's, said Jorge Ravanal, a coach with Avenue Boxing Club who helped develop the program.

It's fast-paced cardio exercise that helps increase dopamine production the brain.

Stretches, footwork and bag drills help build strength and flexibility and can ease painful physical symptoms. The program allows participants to exercise at their own pace, and though they never enter the ring to fight a round, the training remains the same.

"When it comes to the fundamentals of boxing, nothing changes," said Ravanal. "Really, at the end of the day, they don't want to be treated any differently than anyone else. So what we do is no different."

Ravanal said he has never seen a group of athletes so dedicated to the sport.

The sport and Parkinson's have been linked in the public imagination since at least the 1980s, when Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest boxer in history, was diagnosed with the disease.

After being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2015, Barby Swanson says boxing helps her feel empowered. (CBC Edmonton )

Shortly after Ali died in June at age 74, his long-time friend and physician, Dr. Abe Lieberman, said he didn't think boxing contributed to Ali contracting Parkinson's disease, but admitted he couldn't be "a hundred per cent" certain.

Lieberman, who was among those who diagnosed Ali in 1984, made his comments at a news conference at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Ariz.

'It's such a liberating feeling'

Barby Swanson, 63, was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2015. She'd never tried on boxing gloves before taking her first class last spring.

"I was so anxious and afraid," Swanson said. "I thought I was going to be sick. And by the end of it, I loved it and I bought the gloves."

Before she started boxing, there were days when she'd just sit in her room, shut the door and crawl under the blankets.

"So coming out and having something scheduled for me is really good," she said.

When her symptoms first began to surface three years ago, Swanson felt like a stranger had invaded her body.

But when she delivers a solid punch, she no longer feels powerless.

"It makes me feel really good, and actually I laugh a lot here," she said. "My husband always says, get in there and have a good laugh.

"And you would never think about boxing as laughing, but it's such a liberating feeling."

With files from Trevor Wilson