Taking on Parkinson's in the boxing ring

Jean-Paul Demers is sure he'd be in a wheelchair by now, if he weren't lacing up his gloves twice a week and stepping into the boxing ring.

Physical rehabilitation service offers boxing classes to help lessen symptoms of Parkinson’s

Marie-Andrée Gagnon, left, demonstrates core-stabilizing exercises to a participant in the Synapse Neuroréadaptation boxing class. (Aakruti Patel/CBC)

Jean-Paul Demers is sure he'd be in a wheelchair by now, if he weren't lacing up his gloves twice a week and stepping into the boxing ring.

Demers, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 13 years ago, says he's managed to cut his medications in half, and has seen drastic changes since he started boxing last year. 

"With Parkinson's, what helps is exercise, good medication and good sleep," he told Radio-Canada.

"With this exercise, what's fun is we're working the whole body, even the brain and memory. We work on both of those a lot."

The sexagenarian drives 45 minutes each way to train in specialized classes for people with the neurodegenerative disease. 

"When I come out of here, I'm more relaxed and I find it marvelous," he said. 

His daughter Myriam Demers said she's also noticed a difference in her father.

"My father has so much more energy every day," she said.

Inspired by Indianapolis

He took up the sport thanks to Synapse Neuroréadaptation. 

In partnership with a gym in Lévis, the Quebec physical rehabilitation service launched a program last September to give people with Parkinson's the chance to swing a few punches and help alleviate their symptoms.

The gym owners were inspired by the Sherbrooke Boxing Club, which began using sparring and fitness training to fight the symptoms of the neurodegenerative disease in 2017.

Programs like it have proliferated throughout North America, inspired by Rock Steady Boxing, which was founded in Indianapolis in 2006.

An Indiana prosecutor diagnosed with Parkinson's, Scott C. Newman, developed the program after noticing how much his own condition improved after he started boxing.

Jean-Paul Demers, left, says he'd likely be in a wheelchair by now, were it not for boxing. (Jean-François Nadeau/Radio-Canada)

The owner of Synapse Neuroréadaptation, Benoit Labbé, sent one of his kinesiologists to Indiana for training and now offers a 12-week program.

Labbé said participants have told him they are less fatigued during the day since they've started the classes.

He said the exercise helps lessen what's described as "off times" — unpredictable periods when medications are not working optimally and symptoms of the disease return.

Boxers start the intensive 90-minute classes by doing drills facing mirrors before pairing up, as the Rocky theme song blasts on the gym speakers.

The participants then do resistance band work and practise their balance before getting in the ring with Labbé.

Many benefits to the exercise

Labbé said there's also a social and emotional element to the training, because the boxers are able to bring loved ones to watch, and they're doing a group activity with other people who have what can be an isolating disease.

"Recent scientific studies have shown that high intensity exercises like boxing have neuroprotective effects, which means it can reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and also delay the apparition of those symptoms," said Marie-Andrée Gagnon, a physiotherapist with Synapse Neuroréadaptation.

Myriam Demers, left, brings her son Elliot Mercier to watch her fahter, Jean-Paul Demers, at his biweekly boxing workout. (Aakruti Patel/CBC)

She said one of the most common symptoms of the neurodegenerative disorder is slowness of movement and difficulty getting started. Boxing, she said, is helpful in giving "cognitive cues" to initiate movement.

Gagnon's boxing classes include exercises to improve balance, posture, muscle strength, co-ordination and flexibility.

"The boxing training is really a complete training," Gagnon said. "It's fun and is also a good stress-reliever."

About the Author

Spencer Van Dyk

Journalist

Spencer Van Dyk is a journalist with CBC Quebec City. Follow her on Twitter @spencerlynne.

With files from Aakruti Patel and Radio-Canada

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