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Mark Skoko, 64, and Deborah Janes, 69, who each live with Parkinson's disease, work with kinesiologist Marcela Jaimes during the Grizzly Strides boxing program at Grizzly Boxing and Fitness in Calgary, Alta., May 17, 2023.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

Boxers in a brightly lit Calgary gym, lunging gloved fists at punching bags, aren’t training for an amateur three rounds or the championship distance of 12 rounds. They’re fighting against a lifelong opponent – Parkinson’s disease.

Peter Gant, who was diagnosed with the neurological disorder in 2015 at age 62, shakes with tremors as he delivers rhythmic punches during a class tailored for people with Parkinson’s at Grizzly Boxing & Fitness. He said he visualizes the bag as the disease itself, hitting as hard and as fast as he can with each blow.

“You can either give up, give in or give it all you’ve got,” he said. “It’s almost like cancer patients who focus on their cancer as if they’re beating it up, as if they’re destroying it and that visualization gives them more power over their cancer.”

There is no known cause or cure for Parkinson’s, but studies have shown that physical exercise can slow its progression. Non-contact boxing programs for people with the disease, like Grizzly Strides in Calgary, while still limited, have gained popularity across Canada to help patients manage symptoms, such as tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles and cognitive delays.

Mr. Gant, who retired as an emergency physician and transport doctor with Alberta’s air rescue service because of the disease, said the class pushes him mentally and physically beyond his limits but, perhaps more importantly, gives him hope and a sense of community. It’s a space where he doesn’t have to meet judging eyes who don’t understand why he’s wobbling or shaking.

“If you’re in a situation of isolation then you need to work at forming a circle of friends or other individuals who can actually support you in the disease process. It makes life a whole lot easier,” he said.

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Marcela Jaimes works with participants living with Parkinson's disease during the Grizzly Strides boxing program.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

“There’s an understanding that exists between the people that are in this program where you don’t have to explain why you’ve got dyskinesia and why you’ve got a tremour and why you’re having a bad day.”

Mr. Gant is joined by six others for a Monday morning class in July, which is for intermediate or more advanced boxers with Parkinson’s. Bright orange cones are set up in the centre of the gym, a basketball resting on two of them, where participants will later dribble with their non-dominant hand to strengthen it before doing jumping jacks.

It’s one of multiple stations for circuit training that test not only the body but the mind.

Small groups move from one mental and physical exercise to another, at one station naming the calendar months in reverse while balancing on a half ball and, at another, acting out animals or instruments in a game of charades then writing the correct answer on a large dry erase board. The charades helps build non-verbal skills while the writing exercise helps address another characteristic of Parkinson’s – small, cramped handwriting.

Then comes boxing.

The group spreads out in the gym, punching the air high and fast then low and slow. Some of the members fake fight each other, dodging and weaving while laughing before it’s time to put gloves over their wrapped hands.

Gym owner Darcy Irwin, who leads the class, switches between English and Spanish while she calls out boxing combinations with different punches labelled one through eight, or uno through ocho.

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Peter Gant, 69, said attending Grizzly Strides consistently leaves him feeling better than when he walked in, physically and mentally.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

“The reason that boxing works well is that on the physical or motor side, their balance and co-ordination are challenged more and more because this is degenerative,” said Ms. Irwin. “Because their opponent, the disease, is going to continue to worsen, you need to be able to fight that with a repertoire of skills in the areas of balance and co-ordination.”

Parkinson’s itself is not a fatal disease but difficulty swallowing, which develops over time, can lead to aspiration and pneumonia, a common killer. Another danger is bad falls, which is why exercising is so important to adapting and fighting back against the disease, in addition to other risks such as cerebrovascular – which effects blood vessels in the brain – and cardiovascular diseases.

“We prepare them along the way to manage these stimuli coming at them, trying to knock them off balance, which becomes anything like a doorway, another person, a child,” said Ms. Irwin. That’s when a boxing stance, feet firmly planted on the ground at a shoulder-length distance, would come in handy, she adds, allowing a person to recover quickly.

Mr. Gant, who has been attending the class for about four years, said having Parkinson’s means there are bad days and good days that don’t follow any obvious pattern. But he said Grizzly Strides consistently leaves him feeling better than when he walked in, physically and mentally.

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