Nine ‘fighters’ gather each week at The ShadowBox in Lacombe to face off against their common foe of Parkinson’s disease.
The Dopamain Gym Program is described as a boxercise program for Parkinson’s fighters, who gather Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. at The Shadowbox
Doug Rowe is the group’s head trainer.
“We started this program seven years ago – I started with one client in Red Deer and then we got bigger – up to 12 – and it’s been going great ever since,” he said.
Currently, there are nine fighters in the Lacombe group.
According to Parkinson Canada, Parkinson’s is described as a neurodegenerative disease. Movement is normally controlled by dopamine, a chemical that carries signals between the nerves in the brain. When cells that normally produce dopamine die, the symptoms of Parkinson’s appear.
Most common symptoms include tremors, slowness and stiffness, impaired balance, and rigidity of the muscles
As to the group’s history, the Red Deer group ultimately became so large that the Lacombe group was launched in 2019.
“Nobody has the courage that these fighters have,” Rowe said. “First of all, the opponent they are facing is bigger than anybody that you could ever fight.
“It’s just been an amazing experience. And we’ve had amazing results.
“We are thankful to The ShadowBox who allow us to use this facility for basically next to nothing – they have been so wonderful and so giving to us,” he said. “Dr. Jennifer Bestard, a Red Deer neurologist, also paid for my training by sending me to Indianapolis where I did the ‘Rock Steady’ program. She also came in and trained me and some of the coaches, too.”
“We’ve had lots of support from the medical community and just the community at large, and also from Parkinson’s Alberta,” he said.
For Rowe’s part, his connection to this therapeutic approach to Parkinson’s came via three brain injuries he suffered over a period of four years.
“I had a lot of the similar symptoms that the Parkinson’s fighters have,” he said.
Ultimately, after receiving the support and help he did during his own recovery, Rowe said he needed to find a way to give back as well.
He noticed a documentary about the Rock Steady program in Ottawa and knew he had found the right project to dive into.
“There is a lot of science behind it, and actually, the university of Indianapolis has done studies on it. We tend to be very sedentary in our lifestyles, and we rarely engage the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism in our first-world lifestyles,” he explained, adding that boxing mimics the fight or flight mechanism which in turn bolsters the production of dopamine in the brain.
Another focus during the sessions is to help the fighters with balance issues, which are tackled via a range of specific exercises.
It all works wonders, increasing strength and helping with fine motor skills while enhancing flexibility as well.
“They work hard, they are intense and they are super competitive – it’s just amazing,” he said.
In fact, two members have made such amazing strides that they now help Rowe with coaching.
“Terry Williamson and Kim Harder are in better condition and in better shape now – seven years later – than when they started this program,” said Rowe. “And they became so good at what they were doing, that we certified them as coaches!
“They are two amazing individuals,” said Rowe, who himself has an impressive track record as a boxing and martial arts coach.
Harder started up with the group right from the get-go. “I jumped onboard right away because I saw that it was something we needed here,” he said.
“You walk through the door, you see everyone and by the time we are done here, everybody feels uplifted and has a smile on their face,” he said, adding that boxing helps not just with physical symptoms but also with warding off depression and anxiety as well.
“It’s not just the boxing – it’s a whole exercise program right from the warming up to the stretching. I incorporate a lot of the stretching into my program.”
For Williamson, who was at one time a competitive swimmer, his diagnosis was made 25 years ago.
Since those days, being a part of this group has made an enormous difference.
It’s been a tremendous support in an emotional sense as well.
“This has helped my balance, it’s helped my strength and my coordination,” he said, adding that it means “everything” to be a part of the Dopamain Gym Program. “It also really gives me something to look forward to. I enjoy the workouts, and these are good people.”
Ultimately, the group brings much joy and inspiration to Rowe each week.
“These guys are my heroes. Honestly, I’ve worked with some of the best athletes in the world and these guys are more courageous, have more strength of character, and more determined than anybody that I have ever worked with.”
For more information, find them on Facebook under ‘Dopamain Gym’.
“With every one of these people, I see the athleticism in them and again that determination. It’s a huge inspiration for me.”