Punching out Parkinson’s disease in Kitsilano

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      On the face of it, this looks like many other fitness classes. It starts with the music, in this case the uptempo “Love Is a Beautiful Thing”, and participants are encouraged to do hip circles before folding their upper body over their lower body.

      With the encouragement of the group leader, Allie Saks, they later pair up with exercise partners and start running back and forth across the large workout room at Ron Zalko Fitness and Yoga in Kitsilano.

      “Remind yourself what you want to get out of this class,” Saks says with her headset on and her voice blaring through the loudspeakers.

      But this is no ordinary workout. Every person in the class has Parkinson’s, a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting movement, balance, and speech.

      These and other symptoms—including depression, chewing and eating problems, and sleep disorders—are brought on by a loss of neurons in the brain that produce a chemical messenger called dopamine.

      “When people think of Parkinson’s, one of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s only for old people—and that all people with Parkinson’s have a tremor,” Saks told the Georgia Straight in an interview at the gym. “That’s not really the case.”

      Participants in her class cover a wide range of ages and fitness levels. And don’t call Saks a “personal trainer”, even though she could easily be mistaken for one in the way she dishes out instructions in the class.

      In fact, she’s a registered occupational therapist and a coach at Rock Steady Boxing Vancouver, which offers exercise programs tailored for people with Parkinson’s disease.

      The Straight visited the class to draw attention to April being Parkinson’s Awareness Month in Canada. World Parkinson's Day is on April 11 when events take place around the globe to draw attention to the disease.

      This was no easy workout regimen. Each person went twice through 10 stations featuring different exercises, spending a minute on each. There were four stepping routines, including an agility ladder along the floor, three boxing stations, a twisting exercise, medicine-ball squats, and a mat for doing planks.

      “I didn’t find the planks that difficult because I’m already as stiff as a board,” quipped one of the participants, Vancouver resident Paul Willis.

      He and the others punched a boxing bag hanging from the ceiling—10 times with their right fist and 10 times with their left—then repeated it.

      They stood with their back to another bag, punching it from behind to improve their balance. Then they start hitting the speed bag, just as the pros do.

      CBC News broadcast this documentary in 2016 about the original Rock Steady program in Indianapolis.

      Saks said there’s a “big cognitive component” to boxing. And researchers have demonstrated that vigorous exercise can slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

      “We always want to keep them challenged and using their brain in different ways,” she noted.

      Saks was working with people with Parkinson’s disease in a hospital several years ago when she discovered the Rock Steady program on a TV show. She later travelled to the nonprofit Rock Steady headquarters in Indianapolis to take the training.

      From there, she formed a Vancouver affiliate—one of about 800 around the world.

      “We’re always concerned about balance, first and foremost,” Saks emphasized. “We want to work on posture. We want to work on spinal rotations, so that’s why we do a lot of twisting in class.”

      The owner of the gym, Ron Zalko, told the Straight that he admires the spirit of the participants.

      “I like people that fight—and they don’t give up,” Zalko said.

      As for Willis, he said it’s good for him physically and mentally—and he highly recommended it to anyone else who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

      “You sweat a bit,” Willis conceded. “Allie says, ‘What do you want to get out of it?’ I say staying alive.”