Lifestyle

Taking a swing at Parkinson's

The Rock Steady program at South Surrey
The Rock Steady program at South Surrey's BOX2FIT gym is trying to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson's.
— image credit: Tracy Holmes photos

Lynn McIvor was 56 when Parkinson's hit in 2002.

Working as a court clerk and a justice of the peace in Victoria, the diagnosis followed what started with unexplained stumbling, an arm that wouldn't swing properly and the sudden loss of control when signing paperwork.

"I was tripping a lot," McIvor said.

While treatments for Parkinson's – a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that McIvor describes as "an identity thief" – can range from medication and physiotherapy to surgery, McIvor said she has found the greatest relief from its symptoms through alternative practices, such as tai chi, medical qi-gong and dancing.

This month, the now-72-year-old added boxing to her regimen.

"I feel awake," she said, after an introductory Rock Steady Boxing workout led by Frankie LaSasso.

"I think any kind of exercise is proving that it's good for Parkinson's."

The Rock Steady program – which was founded in Indiana in 2006 and started officially at LaSasso's BOX2FIT gym in South Surrey on March 13 – is recognized by Parkinson Society British Columbia as one "which gives people with Parkinson's disease hope by improving their quality of life through a non-contact boxing-based fitness curriculum."

For LaSasso, a physiotherapist assistant who has 25 years of boxing experience, "it's a perfect fit."

"Boxing is my passion. It's the number-one thing in my life," the 35-year-old Florida native said.

"When I found out I could put the two together… it was like a dream come true."

Training in Indianapolis included learning how to group program participants according to their capabilities, to ensure they get the level of support they need to complete the workouts, as well as the most benefit.

Boxing exercises have been shown to lessen Parkinson symptoms, LaSasso said.

Those symptoms – ranging from tremors and impaired balance to fatigue and muscle rigidity – appear when the cells that normally produce dopamine, a chemical that carries signals between the nerves in the brain, start to die.

"People with Parkinson's, they don't produce dopamine the way other people do," LaSasso said.

Boxing moves, he said, promote dopamine.

"It's almost like it reawakens the brain," he said. "I have heard that it's helped people with the tremors, walking fast, doing things better."

At the introductory class, McIvor and three other Peninsula residents who've signed up for Rock Steady Boxing – John Toews, Jim Thorn and Maureen (who asked that her last name not be shared) – tried their hands at shadow boxing, combinations and using a speed-bag.

Each participant was joined by a "cornerman," whose role, said LaSasso, was to motivate their partners, as well as provide physical support when needed.

Maureen, a physiotherapist who worked largely with neurology patients, had a smile on her face throughout the introductory class. But she said she is still adjusting to the shock of her Parkinson's diagnosis, which came at the end of 2015, after she developed tremors.

She described the boxing class as "a challenge."

"And I like a challenge," she said.

"It's the rhythm and the balance. When you do something like that, you feel the difference."

While the knowledge that Parkinson's has no cure is tough to live with, Maureen said she's hopeful boxing will help keep the symptoms at bay.

"You have to keep battling on," she said.

For Thorn, 74, who was joined by his wife, Mary, the hope is the class will help him get in the best shape possible; improve his mobility, balance and speech.

"Try to make it easier to live with the Parkinson's," he said, noting the disease has changed his life "quite a bit."

"Things that I'd like to do that I can't anymore."

Diagnosed in 1999, Thorn gave up driving six months ago.

LaSasso said the Rock Steady program recognizes that not everyone with Parkinson's has the same challenges.

At the same time, the workouts – offered five days a week at his 1160 King George Blvd. facility at Pacific Inn – are "really not much different than the regular classes we do."

"It's pushing them to their limit," he said. "Not babying them," he said.

Toews, who was diagnosed about seven years ago, said he has tried other treatments, including physiotherapy. He has seen the positive impact of the boxing regimen firsthand, in his brother, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the same time as he was and participates in a Rock Steady program in Winnipeg.

"He's enjoying it. I noticed when I visited… he had the suitcases no problem," Toews said, referring to getting the bags out of the car.

Toews described the boxing workout as "strenuous," but better than other classes he's tried.

The effort is worthwhile, he added.

"Something's got a hold of you and you can't do anything about it except try and work it off," Toews said, of Parkinson's. "The harder you work, the more likely you'll slow it down."

LaSasso said in addition to the workout, Rock Steady Boxing offers participants a place to "just laugh and live and work hard on beating this."

The journey, he said, is "ongoing."

"Just like a fighter, there's always room for improvement."

Cost of the program is $150 per month; there is also a $50 assessment fee.

For more information, call 778-384-6284.

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