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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

If anyone had asked me five years ago whether I could ever envision taking boxing lessons, I probably would have snorted in derision. Me? Boxing lessons? Mind you, if anyone had asked me five years ago whether I could envision having Parkinson’s disease, I probably would have dismissed that, too.

But here I am, with Parkinson’s. And here I am, taking boxing lessons.

“You? Boxing lessons?” scoffed some friends and family members when I proudly displayed my brand-new Everlast gloves and rolls of tape. They were not being rude, simply disbelieving, as they know me to be skilled in the culinary arts – a lifelong passion – and I had shown absolutely no interest or aptitude in the martial arts before.

It all began with a slight, barely perceptible tremor in my right hand. Being a male of a certain vintage, I took the view that, if I simply ignored it, it would go away. When that approach didn’t solve the problem, I wrote it off instead as an inevitable consequence of aging and began using my left hand more. Soon, not surprisingly, my left hand developed a similar tremor, and both became more noticeable to those around me. Finally coming to my senses, I consulted my family doctor who referred me to a community-based neurologist for assessment.

I was told that there are no bio-markers for Parkinson’s, so urinalysis, for example, or blood sampling cannot confirm the disease. Parkinson’s is a movement disorder that shows up in one’s gait, balance, posture and dexterity, so assessing these and other related symptoms can indicate its presence.

After much testing and observation, I was faced with the incontrovertible fact that I had a degenerative neurological disorder for which there is neither a cause nor a cure. To say that this was not how I had planned to spend my twilight years would be an understatement of award-winning magnitude. However, I decided to skip over anger and denial and go straight to acceptance. Determined to get on with the next steps on my new journey, I had myself referred to the Movement Disorders Clinic of Toronto Western Hospital where my neurologist monitors my gradually evolving condition and adjusts my medication as and when required.

Everyone would benefit from regular physical exercise, of course, but it is particularly so for those with Parkinson’s disease, or PD. My neurologist strongly recommended physical exercise as a way of alleviating the muscle tightness and involuntary movement caused by the disease. I signed up to work with one of the trainers in the fitness facility of the club I belong to, and he developed a program best suited to my condition. Friends who had heard that boxing was an exercise that some PD people found useful suggested I explore that option. I did. Lo and behold, it turned out that one of the trainers in my gym is a boxing instructor. I signed up for a few lessons and, much to my surprise, I loved it.

I see my boxing coach for two half-hour, one-on-one sessions a week. I start with a brisk 20-minute walk from home to warm up and a workout on the weights and machines in the fitness room. Then it’s time to tape up my hands, squeeze my boxing gloves on and get ready to rumble.

My coach wears padded mitts like baseball catcher’s gloves and a wide padded belt around his waist. Each punch has a number – one is a left jab, two right, three and four left and right hooks, respectively, and five and six are left and right uppercuts. We usually start each session with a minute of rapid-fire ones and twos, and then it gets complicated. My coach will start calling different patterns that not only involve varied punches but varied steps and moves – slips and dips – to avoid imaginary punches. (Mercifully, my coach does not return my punches, or else I would not be alive to tell the tale.) A typical pattern, then, might be something like one, three, slip left, five, step back, hard two, all at high speed and requiring the mind and body to work in sync. That is why no-contact boxing training is increasingly recommended for people with PD. It is a high-intensity regime that is both physically and mentally demanding – and, I would argue, incredibly rewarding. I come away from my sessions energized, even exhilarated, albeit a sweaty mess.

Parkinson Canada and other sources recommend boxing training. Anyone contemplating following in my increasingly nimble footsteps – not to mention my lightning jabs and thundering hooks – should check with their doctor first. Given the green light, I am sure that many, if not most, will come to share my irrepressible enthusiasm for this therapeutic sport.

After a recent session, my coach went off to work with someone else while I stowed my gear in my gym bag. As I headed homeward, I walked past my trainer who, praising me on my pugilistic progress, warned that I was becoming a lethal weapon.

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” I replied, quoting Muhammad Ali, who also had Parkinson’s.

“Well,” my trainer said, “just don’t hurt anybody on your way home.”

We both laughed loudly at that scenario. Parkinson’s may be no laughing matter, but the injection of an occasional dose of humour can, like boxing training, be very therapeutic.

Brian Anthony lives in Toronto.