Alexandra Strickland (left) and Jason Heit, with Katie Nelson (centre), manager of operations with the Parkinson Wellness Project, at Club Phoenix on Langford Parkway. The gym will be home to a new boxing program that helps people with Parkinson’s disease starting next week. (Kendra Wong/News Gazette staff)

Parkinson’s boxing program expands to West Shore

Rock Steady Boxing program helps participants with balance, agility and memory

When Leigh Barwin was 52 years old, he could feel something wasn’t right in his body, he just couldn’t put his finger on it.

It started with his loss of smell roughly 30 years ago, followed by a frozen shoulder for some time that he attributed to a sports injury. Barwin also began to walk more slowly and his arms lost their natural rhythm and just hung by his side.

In May 2015, the View Royal resident was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. There is no cure.

“I knew something was happening, I just wasn’t sure what it was,” Barwin said.

In order to slow the progress of the disorder, Barwin was faced with the choice of taking a cocktail of medications or changing his diet and exercising. He chose the latter.

That’s when he found out about Rock Steady Boxing, a program led by former national boxing champion Jason Heit, for people with Parkinson’s. Heit partnered with the Parkinson Wellness Project to bring the program to Island MMA in Victoria. Now after about a year of success downtown, the program is expanding to the West Shore and will be offered at Club Phoenix on Langford Parkway, starting this week.

As part of the program – which is the first of its kind on the West Shore – participants throw on a pair of boxing gloves and head into the ring for a number of non-contact activities.

And it’s making a difference for those living with the disease.

“The big thing is really getting the brain and the body to work together. I think that’s why there’s been such a benefit for people with Parkinson’s disease to box,” Heit said. “There’s a lot of technique going on, there’s a lot to calculate, there’s a lot of strict form. The physical activity combined with the amount of thinking involving in boxing and the co-ordination is good for their development.”

In the last year that Barwin has participated in the program, he has seen a change in his physical abilities. He’s able to walk, run, drive and skip rope – something he was unable to do since the diagnosis and has now mastered. Memorizing the moves also keeps his brain active.

“It’s helped with my balance, it’s helped with my energy, it’s helped with my strength. There’s a good social element as well,” said Barwin, adding the program has helped him emotionally and spiritually as well.

According to the Parkinson Wellness Project, there are roughly 1,600 people living with the disease in lower Vancouver Island, but that number could be higher because many do not come forward or are not properly diagnosed.

Rock Steady Boxing starts on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at Club Phoenix and runs for six weeks, with programs continuing in the new year. There are also classes at Centurion Kickboxing in Sidney on Fridays. For more information visit

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