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Brock professor says boxing program helps women regain control of their bodies

“I immediately fell in love with how visceral it is and how hard it is, and how it’s really like learning a language.”

By NATALIE SAMSON | February 7, 2017

Cathy Van Ingen came to boxing in a way you might expect from an academic – through research. A history course had her learning about legends like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, and seeking out stories of the sport’s female pioneers like Emma Maitland and Aurelia Wheeldin. “I read my way into the boxing ring,” she says. And once she stepped onto the canvas, she was hooked.

“I immediately fell in love with how visceral it is and how hard it is, and how it’s really like learning a language.” As co-founder of Shape Your Life, a free boxing program for women and trans survivors of violence, Dr. Van Ingen has taught this language as a way of overcoming trauma.

Cathy Van Ingen is investigating the benefits of a therapeutic boxing program for women and trans survivors of violence at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth.

Those who’ve experienced violence have “lost control over their body,” she says. “The gym is one place – for some of them it’s the only place – where they feel their body is back under their control.” Over the course of 10 years, the Brock University professor has supported more than 1,200 women – refugees who fled violence abroad, sex workers, women with violent partners or who grew up in violent homes – to not only hit a speed bag, but build resiliency and community connections.

To that end, the program takes a “trauma informed” approach: it adapts to the realities of living with violence, from poverty to physical and mental challenges.

Shape Your Life recently received $420,000 from the Public Health Agency of Canada to investigate the effects of what Dr. Van Ingen calls “physical activity interventions” for survivors of violence. With the help of Brock exercise psychologist Kimberley Gammage, Dr. Van Ingen will engage boxers in surveys, focus groups and interviews throughout the 14-week program.

“It’s complicated because all funders really want is this beautiful, tidy, redemptive narrative,” Dr. Van Ingen says. Instead, her tools will encourage participants to share, in their own words, their successes and their continued struggles. The point, she says, is to “never lose the woman in the statistic.”

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