Townshippers fight Parkinson's disease a punch at a time

Rock Steady Boxing, a program launched by an Indiana man who took up boxing after his diagnosis with Parkinson's disease at 40, is a hit in Sherbrooke, where a nursing professor is studying the impact of boxing workouts on people with the neurodegenerative disease.

Rock Steady Boxing uses sparring, fitness training to fight symptoms of neurodegenerative disease

Douglas Monteith spars in the ring with his trainer at the Sherbrooke Boxing Club. Monteith was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2011, and he says since he started boxing, there's a spring in his step. (Radio-Canada)

Douglas Monteith dances around the ring under the supervision of his personal trainer. His punches are slow. His hands, encased in boxing gloves, tremble a little, but the gloves mask the tremors.

For a man in his 80s, diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2011, Monteith is remarkably spry.

"I've been able to do everything. I still drive; I still work in the garage, but it's a little bit slower," Monteith says. "I try to do something every day."

Since last June, part of his routine is at the Sherbrooke Boxing Club, where he and a dozen other people living with Parkinson's spar.

Rock Steady Boxing was developed in Indianapolis in 2006. It was started by an Indiana prosecutor, Scott C. Newman, who was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease at 40.

Newman noticed a significant improvement in his own condition after he started boxing. That's when he developed the training program. Since then, programs like it have proliferated throughout North America.

Ken Beck, who has Parkinson's disease, practises his punches. (Claude Rivest/CBC)

"When I leave, I'm feeling better. My muscles don't feel sore; I just feel good," Monteith says.

Even if there weren't evidence that sparring was helping reduce his symptoms, Monteith says he would keep at it.

"Learning how to box, doing the different exercises — when you hit that bag, you let go some frustrations," he said. "It's just great."

Scientific study behind initiative

The program was set up by Andréanne Tanguay, a nursing professor at Université de Sherbrooke. Since it began last June, Tanguay has been gathering data on the participants.

"There is a lot of scientific data on the effects of exercising on Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, but for boxing itself, we're only starting to do research on its effects," Tanguay said.

Université de Sherbrooke nursing Prof. Andréanne Tanguay started the Rock Steady Boxing program last June and is studying its impact on participants, who have Parkinson's disease. (Radio-Canada)

For the current participants, the effects so far appear to be overwhelmingly positive.

"When we started, some participants were not able to get through the ropes and into the ring without the assistance of a few people. When we went into the ring last week, it had gotten so easy for them to get in," Tanguay said.

Tanguay said people who could barely walk at the beginning of the program are now running and skipping rope.

"It's impressive to see an 80-year-old person exercise with a jump rope, when just a few weeks prior, the same person would not have known what to do with that rope," she said.

Tanguay plans to launch a more exhaustive study as early as this winter, in collaboration with other medical researchers at the university.

How amateur boxers with Parkinson's are using the sport to fight back against the disease. 4:43

With files from Radio-Canada


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