Parkinson's patients prepare to punch back at symptoms with boxing in Lacombe

Kim Harder, left, has a bit of a laugh as he takes some jabs at the glove of Larry Lentz during a June Dopamain Gym session at the Arashi Do Martial Arts Studio in Red Deer. The Dopamain Gym program is expected to begin in Lacombe this month. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

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Parkinson’s Disease has no cure, but those diagnosed with the neurological disorder in the Lacombe area will soon have a way to fight back against their symptoms.

Dopamain Gym,  a modified boxing program which began in Red Deer three years ago as of July 2 as Alberta’s first exercise program created specifically to improve Parkinson’s symptoms, is expected to open in what will be Lacombe’s newest boxing club, the Shadowbox, by July 16.

“In central Alberta, we have 600 people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We helped Olds start a program, and the numbers are way better for this Lacombe program than we started with in Red Deer,” said Doug Rowe, “We have 27 people interested already, which tells me there’s a need, and having the program right there where they can take the bus or walk or make an easy drive is going to make it easier.”

The program began after Rowe, who has a background in guidance councilling in addition to coaching boxing, watched an eight-minute documentary on CBC about such a program in Toronto and the positive impact it had on those living with Parkinson’s.

“I looked at this and knew this was something I needed to get involved in,” he said. “The next day I was shopping and I ran into one of the local neurologists and I told her the idea and she was 100 per cent on board with the idea…I contacted Parkinson’s Alberta and they were interested and it just gained a life of its own.”

The program started with about 11 members in Red Deer, but has long since reached its maximum of 26 people, prompting a need for a second program in the immediate central Alberta area. While consideration was given to creating a second program in Red Deer, members of Lacombe’s Parkinson’s support group – several of which currently make the trip to Red Deer – clamoured for a program in the city and the decision was made to open a Dopamain Gym in the community to serve Parkinson’s fighters in the more rural communities.

Among those advocating for a program in Lacombe was Kim Harder, a 68-year-old from south of Gull Lake, who has been part of the Dopamain Gym since its inception.

Terry Williamson, left, jabs at the gloves of Innisfail Mayor Jim Romane during a June Dopamain Gym session in Red Deer at Arashi Do Martial Arts Studio. Williamson’s Parkinson’s score was cut in half after training in the program, while Romane felt well enough to run in the last municipal election campaign after previously vacating his post. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

Diagnosed in 2013, he said Parkinson’s had left him feeling frustrated with himself, and his temper was quick to flare as a result. Several months throwing jabs and performing combinations, however, and that changed.

“Before I got diagnosed, I was having a lot of trouble doing things and I didn’t know why. I’d lose my temper because I wasn’t able to do things I would normally do and that wore on me for years. I was not in a good place mentally – the anxiety and stress was more than I could bare,” Harder said. “Now I understand (the symptoms) and I deal with them and this program has really helped with that.

“It’s made such a difference in my overall mental health, even moreso than my physical health. It motivates you to get out and do something.”

He’s been able to watch his peers improvement as well, noting many started coming with canes and walkers and soon were coming without, which he said was cool to see and something he looks forward to watching in Lacombe.

Larry Lentz, 72, of Ponoka, meanwhile, said attending Dopamain Gym was the best thing he’d done since being diagnosed in 2017.

After a few months of attendance, he said he was not only stronger and more flexible, his breathing and balance had improved, and his voice even became stronger.

“I was slowing down and getting stiff and I heard there was a Dopamain Gym so I enrolled in teh fall of 2018 and just fell in love with it,” he said. “The physical benefits are increased strength, more flexibility, and improved breathing. My voice became stronger and I have better balance.”

Prior to the modified boxing program, there was no physical therapy program that showed improvement in Parkinson’s symptoms. Tai Chi came the closest, helping with core strength and balance, however, only proved to stabilize Parkinson’s.

Boxing, meanwhile, has drastically improved Parkinson’s symptoms, moving one of Rowe’s clients from a 34 on the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale to a 17, and another from a 23 to a nine rating.

This is done through what Rowe refers to as engaging fast twitch.

“Fast twitch helpts to stimulate dopamain in the brain and other endorphines,too. It gets the brain flowing and opens up those old, neural networks,” he said.

“In our society, we’re very sedentary. We never engage our fight or flight mechanism and what happens is these people are engaging their fight or flight mechanism all the time – there’s no physical contact or real boxing, but we do lots of boxing type simulations so it gets that mode going and they get a dopamain kick.”

It’s been so successful that people suffering from MS are starting to take interest in Dopamain Gym. While the research doesn’t officially back its benefits aside from the general exercise aspect, Rowe says they’ve seen a positive impact on their four MS clients as well.

The major benefits, however, are still with those battling Parkinson’s.

A group of Parkinson’s fighters participating in the Dopamain Gym modified boxing program at Arashi Do Martial Arts Studio in Red Deer put up their dukes before one of their June classes. Such a program is expected to begin in Lacombe this month. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

“Everybody’s seen benefit. We were told we weren’t going to see any changes for six weeks, but we saw changes in three weeks,” Rowe said. “One of the things that happens is people have ‘Parkinson’s mask’ which is the best poker face you’ll ever see. They show no emotion. Within three weeks of training, that Parkinson’s mask is gone.

“We had another lady who has not been able to taste food for years, and after a year of training she got her taste back. It works really, really well to help people recover. It gives them hope.”

Beyond that, Rowe, Harder and Lentz all agreed that the comaraderie between the Parkinson’s fighters was also a huge benefit, given the tendency for some dealing with a disease to isolate themselves.

A total of 10,000 people in Alberta battle Parkinson’s, with 600 in central Alberta. Only a fraction are clients with Parkinson’s Alberta, so the goal is to expand such programs throughout the province and moving into Lacombe is their latest step.

Courtney Ukrainetz, the local client services coordinator with Parkinson’s Association of Alberta, says she’s glad to see the program come into the community.

“It’s so important. The number on things the majority of neurologists and family doctros will prescribe as a treatment for Parkinson’s, because there is no cure, is medication, hand-in-hand with exercise,” she said. “Some of my clients exercise in their home, but that can become a safety concern if they don’t have someone to modify or to help them or supervise them, so boxing or any kind of exercise program to come into as a group with an instructor who is certified is very important.”

The City of Lacombe awarded $1,800 through the 2019 Recreation and Culture Grant program to the Dopamain Gymn, which will be put towards equipment for the gym to set up shop this month.

“Lacombe is a community that is really great at coming together. If they feel their city needs a service, they get it,” Ukrainetz said. “Having Parkinson’s and treating it is a full time job, so it really makes sense to me that people with Parkinson’s decided this is a program they needed and are now getting.”

A local Parkinson’s support group for those affected also runs the fourth Wednesday of every month at the Wolf Creek Community Church from 10 a.m. until 12 p.m.

Those looking for more information can call (403)346-4463 or email