Float like a butterfly: Parkinson’s patients take up boxing to fight symptoms – Ottawa

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…

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