A love for boxing brought Robyn Murrell to fitness.
Now the New Westminster personal trainer is planning to use some of that sport’s training techniques to help people living with Parkinson’s stay active and fit.
Parkinson’s is a progressive brain disease that robs sufferers of their fine motor skills, their mobility and sometimes even their ability to communicate. It often strikes when people are about to retire and enjoy the fruits of their life’s toil, but younger people aren’t immune from its symptoms.
Nobody knows what causes Parkinson’s, but some of its more famous sufferers include former boxers like Muhammed Ali, perhaps paying the price for years of blows to the head.
It’s that connection to her beloved sport that lit a bulb over Murrell’s head.
A certified personal trainer who’s run ZHOOSH Fitness for more than three years, Murrell knows intimately the connection between fitness and activity and quality of life. Perhaps she could adapt aspects of her own fitness programs, which are rooted in combat sports like boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts, to help people living with Parkinson’s retain or regain their quality of life?
Her research led her to a program called Rock Steady Boxing that had been developed at a gym in Indianapolis that was founded in 2006 by a former county prosecutor living with Parkinson’s. While that program has spread to affiliates across the United States and even one gym in Italy, it has yet to come to Canada. Murrell is booked to take their training program to become a certified instructor this summer.
In the interim, Parkinson Society British Columbia connected Murrell with Dr. Becky Farley, a neuroscientist, physical therapist and Parkinson exercise specialist from Arizona. The Society happened to be hosting an intense two day training session called Power Wellness Recovery or PRW!Moves with Dr. Farley for yoga, dance and fitness instructors to work with people living with Parkinson’s. Murrell signed on immediately and last fall became one of the first certified personal trainers in the province qualified to teach a specialized exercise program for people living with Parkinson’s.
From April to July 2015, Murrell also was the New West team leader of a walking group called Step by Step which was a province wide pilot project by Parkinson Society BC for people living with Parkinson’s.
That gave her some hands-on experience for the challenges ahead.
“Confidence was the one challenge that went right across the board, from people who barely had symptoms to those who needed walkers,” said Murrell. “Parkinson’s affects them emotionally. Some of them quit everything, they give up.”
Rebuilding that confidence is a big part of the exercise program she’s developed, said Murrell. People living with Parkinson’s have to work on their balance, learn how to make big moves like striding instead of walking with small, tentative steps, getting up out of a chair, climbing into a car or out of bed.
“As the disease progresses, they have a hard time doing them,” said Murrell. “These are the things we take for granted.”
Participants in the program won’t be hitting heavy bags or skipping rope, said Murrell. Instead they’ll work with plastic hoops and scarves, reaching out, taking progressively bigger steps. And they’ll have to vocalize as they’re doing it.
“We teach them to talk while they’re doing their moves so they’re multitasking,” said Murrell.
Like a boxer’s workout, the routine will transition from exercise to exercise. That helps their focus, keep their brains sharp.
The ultimate goal of the twice-weekly exercise classes is to get clients back to an activity level comparable to what they enjoyed before they were diagnosed.
“They didn’t ask for this to happen,” said Murrell. “For them to be able to go back to living the active life before, they might have some limitations, but they get to enjoy their life again.”
A one-hour assessment is required before beginning the Parkinson Wellness Recovery exercise program. Classes begin in February and run every Monday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to noon, at the ZHOOSH Fitness Garage, 131 11th St.