Skip to content

Boxers with Parkinson’s fighting for better lives

The short burst of exercise through boxing is helping Parkinson's patients in Alberta.

For about a week in March, Dave Millar of Red Deer had not attended his regular session at the Dopamain Gym. He’d also been inconsistent with home exercises.

“It was basically seven days, and I was stiff and sore, so I had to do some stretches on my own today, before going to boxing,” said the 58-year-old.

For Millar, even this brief period without exercise has consequences. He has Parkinson’s disease (PD), which for him shows up mainly as tremors, pain on his entire right side, fatigue and stiffness.

“If you don’t exercise on your own for an extended time, the stiffness, the aches, they get worse,” he said.

PD is a progressive neurological disorder that arises when cells in the brain that normally produce dopamine start to die. There are treatments, but no cure. There is also no known cause, though risk factors include aging, environmental toxins and a possible genetic link.

About 15 years ago, Millar noticed a tremor in his little finger. Then he noticed his right foot would twitch.

“Looking back, it makes perfect sense. But you never think Parkinson’s," he said.

For Ponoka resident Gloria Bruggencate, she noticed her writing was getting smaller about six months into her retirement. Then friends and family started seeing more pronounced changes.

“My husband said 'you’re not swinging your right arm'. A couple of friends noticed it too," she recalled. “Then I noticed I was walking slightly forward.”

A tremor in her hand about five years ago led to a Parkinson's diagnosis.

A different way to fight the disease

Bruggencate and Millar box with other fighters at the Dopamain Gym (locations in Red Deer and Lacombe). It offers a modified boxercise program for people with Parkinson's.

In 2016, gym founder and head trainer Doug Rowe was helping a client in Red Deer. By mid-summer, with Parkinson Association of Alberta (PAA), the Red Deer Boxing Club, Arashi-do Martial Arts and Red Deer neurologist Jennifer Bestard--who paid for his training in the Rock Steady program--Rowe started a group class. Attendance grew, so with support from the City of Lacombe, PAA and the Shadowbox club, he expanded to Lacombe.

Bruggencate boxes twice a week and has daily walks to keep her symptoms at bay. Millar, whose home exercise routine didn't offer much difference to his symptoms at first, says the Dopamain program has been life-changing.

“It has motivated me to work out on my own, to lose weight and keep it off. Through the pandemic, I don’t know what I would have done without the boxing, because it inspired me to do something every day," he said.

The quick bursts of boxing exercise under the Rock Steady program--founded in 2006 in Indianapolis by a PD sufferer--has been shown to lead to improvements in strength, power, agility and balance, as well as hand-eye coordination and reaction time.

Boxercise also boosts mood, and while there’s no physical contact or sparring at the Dopamain Gym, these are simulated with things like pool noodles and circuit training.

“We focus on fast twitch muscles, different combinations and footwork to increase the flow of dopamine and open new neural pathways and refurbish old neural pathways,” explained Rowe.

From its headquarters in Calgary and the Buchanan Centre in Edmonton, PAA is focusing this year's Parkinson's Awareness Month on community. 

“At some point people with PD rely on a family member or someone they employ,” said Lana Tordoff, PAA executive director. “Having someone who will listen and be non-judgmental, to stay connected, that’s really important for our organization, and to listen to their care partners and families. It’s really becoming this extended family.”

For Bruggencate, the fellow fighters at Dopamain Gym are invaluable to her motivation, especially since it can be easy to "just sit in the house.”

“It's having this group of people, knowing you can phone them for support,” she said. “I love the boxing part of it, I physically feel better, but I love the people I box with, the camaraderie.”

Doug Rowe calls fighters in the Dopamain Gym heroes.

“We battle this disease every day,” added Millar. “I hate to say a hero, but I did a speech at the Parkinson’s walk last year, and I said I’m honoured to fight the battle with these others.”

Boxercise is also offered by PAA in Calgary and at the Buchanan Centre in Edmonton. To register for a PAA program or make a donation, go to or call 1-800-561-1911. Visit the Dopamain Gym at

Parkinson’s disease research in Alberta

PAA supports research for the treatment and diagnosis of PD, which is seeing leading edge work at the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge. Together they form Campus Alberta Neuroscience, launched in 2012 to develop the province as a centre of neuroscience excellence.

For more information or to participate in a study, go to

Parkinson's Awareness Month activities this April:

-PAA is helping organize events and activities in communities across the province, including an Apr 5 webinar on the care partner role in the Parkinson's community/relationships. See for details on all events.

-Spring Social events across Alberta. These are free events for Parkinson’s clients, friends and guests to enjoy conversation, games, laughter, stories and refreshments.

-Weekly webinars feature expert presenters plus short presentations from PAA community members. These are free through April, each Wed. at noon.

-April 11 is World Parkinson’s Day, the birthday of Dr. James Parkinson who first recognized the disease. Locations in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Grande Prairie will be lit in the Parkinson’s colours of blue and green.



push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks