Winnipeggers with Parkinson's fight back against disease with boxing program

When 61-year-old Monique Coffell was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease two years ago, she became depressed, suffered pain in her upper shoulders and was left with a lot of questions.

"I didn't know what was wrong with me," she says.

When she decided to do some online research on Parkinson's, she discovered Rock Steady Boxing, an international program that's offered at United Boxing Club in Winnipeg's Osborne Village. 

"It said [boxing is] supposed to be very good for you," Coffell explains. "So I decided to try it."

Almost four months later, Coffell has fallen in love with the sport. She says the volunteers make her feel at home, she no longer suffers pain in her shoulders and best of all, she's having fun.

"Since I've been coming here, my attitude has changed and I'm no longer depressed," she says. "You come here, do your exercise, meet a bunch of new people and you laugh. I love it."

For Coffell, not feeling isolated was one of the program's immediate draws.

"It makes you feel like you're not the only one in the world that has Parkinson's," she says.

"The boxing environment isn't always friendly," says volunteer coach Genevieve Michael. "But this is a warm and friendly environment, particularly to the Parkinson's group."

It's not your average boxing class — Rock Steady Boxing aims to help members manage symptoms of Parkinson's, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly affects the motor system.

As the disease progresses, it robs people of coordination, strength and balance. While there is no known cure, various studies support the notion that rigorous exercise can benefit people with the disease.

"We treat every [Rock Steady] participant as an athlete," Michael said. "Some of them work harder than members that come that don't have any challenges in their lives."

Participants come to the gym with the expectation that the coaches are going to work them hard every Tuesday night, but in a challenging and fun environment, she said.

"We've had amazing transformations in their personalities and confidence," Michael said.

"They now have more energy, laughter and happiness in their life," she said. "I teach a lot of classes here but this is my favourite for sure."

The training at United Boxing Club includes hitting the heavy bag and hand pads, skipping, circuit training and even hula hooping.

There are no head punches in this class; it's a non-contact boxing-inspired program.

Rock Steady Boxing was founded in Indianapolis in 2006 by former prosecutor Scott C. Newman. He began boxing training a few years after being diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's at the age of 40 and noticed an improvement with some of his symptoms. 

Tim Hague is the founder and director of U-Turn Parkinson's, the group that hosts Rock Steady Boxing in Winnipeg. Hague — who won the first season of the reality TV show The Amazing Race Canada with his son — was diagnosed with Parkinson's in March of 2011.

He first heard about Rock Steady when United Boxing Club coach and ex-boxer Brandt Butt came to a Parkinson's support group to talk about a boxing program he had helped start.

"From that moment forward, I knew I had to work with Brandt," says Hague.

"Just hearing his story and his passion to work with people with Parkinson's, we both said we had to work together."

Hague and Butt have been running the boxing program for about a year.

Hague has experienced tremors and a slower response time, but says his experience with Parkinson's isn't bad compared to others living with the disease.

"I tend to be one of the healthiest people I know with Parkinson's," he said.

Even so, he says Parkinson's draws you into yourself and often, Parkinson's patients hide because they feel it is a very public disease.

"With Parkinson's, you feel you're always on display and that everyone is always watching you," he explains.

"But people who come to Rock Steady suddenly find that they are not alone in this disease anymore. They see people who walk, stutter and have the same physical difficulties as they do."

Hague says while it may seem counterintuitive to think that boxing would be good for someone with Parkinson's, research has shown that any sort of forced activity is good for the brain. Every time members throw a punch or learn a new set of punches, Hauge says they are building new pathways in their brains that allow them to work better.

"First of all, we don't hit each other," he says. "We do a lot of stretching and we're making our brains work differently again as people with Parkinson's tend to curl up and stop moving."

For Hague, a former nurse of 21 years, the program provides something essential for its participants.

"I see all of these people, a lot of them who were not exercising and suffering from depression, now finding friendship and camaraderie," he said.

"They're fighting back against this disease."