Float like a butterfly: Parkinson's patients take up boxing to fight symptoms

A group of people with Parkinson's disease are pummelling punching bags to battle their degenerative disorder. Now a researcher at the University of Ottawa is trying to measure the effects.

Ottawa researchers studying whether the sweet science of boxing can improve quality of life

Jacques Séguin was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 14 years ago. He says his balance and coordination has improved over the past year thanks to boxing. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)
Jacques Séguin used to be afraid to walk out his front door and cross his street. The 65-year-old former school board superintendent worried he'd be too exhausted to make it back home. Parkinson's disease robbed him of energy and made his hand and foot shake uncontrollably up to 40 times a day.

"It was a time of being insecure, feeling useless and feeling as if I was a weight to the world and my family," said Séguin, who was diagnosed with the disease 14 years ago.

It's a feeling of relief. It's a feeling that my body comes back to its old self.- Jacques Séguin, boxer with Parkinson's disease 

Fast forward to today, and Séguin is furiously punching a speed bag. His feet dancing across the ground as he performs footwork, or jumps over a skipping rope. He said it's as if his Parkinson's rises out of his body while he's boxing.

"It's a feeling of relief," he said. "It's a feeling that my body comes back to its old self … just like on a lake on a summer morning where you have mist [rising.] It's like that, like mist is flowing out of my body."

As Parkinson's progresses, it can strip people of their balance, strength, and co-ordination.

Currently, there is no cure for the disease. But Séguin is one of a dozen people in Ottawa with Parkinson's who are fighting its symptoms through boxing.

'This is their way to fight back'

The high-intensity boxing class at Phoenix Boxing on King Edward Avenue involves training like a competitive boxer, but without taking any hits. It's a non-contact class, and participants never enter the ring.

Boxing coach Chris Weissbach launched the class as a pilot project a year ago ​with the help of Parkinson Canada. Weissbach heard about Rock Steady Boxing, the U.S.-based initiative started in 2006 that has since spread north to Canada, and wanted to offer the class in the capital. 

The thirty-minute, twice-a-week class mixes pummeling a speed bag, skipping, shadow boxing and quick footwork around a heavy bag — all exercises that involve balance, co-ordination, and fast movement — issues that are a struggle for people with Parkinson's. 
Researcher Julie Nantel tests boxing participant Jacques Séguin's balance at her lab. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

"The biggest thing is working on their neurotransmitters … which is what Parkinson's is going to attack," said Weissbach. "So this is their way to fight back. They're rebuilding their brain and their muscles and the connection between the two which is fantastic to see."

Paul Wing was diagnosed with Parkinson's eight years ago. Wing said he's noticed his balance improved since starting to box, saying he used to feel unsure on his feet. 

"It's like walking on Jello," he said. "I'm not sure the balance is correct for the next step. It's helped a lot."

Ottawa researcher testing results 

The program captured the attention of researcher Julie Nantel at the University of Ottawa. She's tapping into the science of boxing to try and measure if there are effects on people with Parkinson's disease.

"I would like to be the first to show that boxing, if it's the case, can improve balance and mobility," said Nantel.

As part of this research, Nantel has Séguin slip on a black, full-body suit covered in grey markers and stand on a blue platform in the middle of a lab room.

Eight cameras that use infrared light surround him to capture his motions and record his movement on a computer nearby. The motion-capture technology is similar to that used in plotting the movement of computer-generated characters in movies like Avatar.

Nantel tested participants in the Parkinson's boxing program before they started eight weeks ago, and now wants to try and measure if there is any change.

"Are they really faster when they're walking?" she said. "Are they moving more fluidly. Are they able to move side to side faster? We are really trying to figure out if the way they feel, we can put numbers on it."

Nantel hopes her work and research like it could help give people with Parkinson's a better quality of life and compliment their medication.

Kristin Plater, 65, says boxing is "almost a miracle because it's constantly moving so I don't have to worry about my twitching." (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Not a cure, but 'a good antidote'

Kristin Plater, 65, said she tried to ignore for Parkinson's for eight years, until suddenly this year it got worse and she couldn't pretend any longer. She started boxing three months ago and said it has given her hope.

"It's a confidence builder, it's a true muscle builder," she said. "It's not going to change the fact that I have Parkinson's. It's not a cure for Parkinson's, but it's certainly a good antidote to feeling that you can't do things."

"I feel that at least I'm competing," she said. "That somehow the symptoms and I are equal here and we can talk turkey about how much I'm going to allow Parkinson's to rule my life," she added.

As for Séguin, he lives by an hour of exercise a day, including racquetball and boxing. He said his tremors have gone from happening up to forty times a day, to only four times daily.

He hopes the research can help others and encourage them to get moving too. 

'Every day I box, I win against Parkinson's," he said.

Assistant professor Julie Nantal at the University of Ottawa says researchers know people with Parkinson's disease need to keep moving, but wants to find out if very intense exercise like boxing can help. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)