Punching through Parkinson’s: Scottsdale boxing gym trains individuals with disease

Sheldon Nitzay (left) spars with boxing trainer Isaiah Flores. In addition to boxing three days per week, Nitzay says he also tap dances to curb symptoms of Parkinson’s. (Photo by Ben Leibowitz/Cronkite News)

As 71-year-old Robert “Bob” Lane put his hand wraps on, boxing trainer Marty Barrett jabbed him with a verbal, “Let’s go, fat boy!”

Lane looked over his shoulder to see Barrett smirking and said, “I guess that’s me. I say all these nice things about you.”

The two shared a laugh. Barrett, who towers over Lane’s 5-foot frame, playfully rubbed Lane’s shoulders as he pulled on his white-and-gray boxing gloves to start his day of training.

Lane was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013 and has been training with Barrett at 12th Round Fit Boxing gym since it opened in Scottsdale in 2016.

Barrett, the gym’s owner, trained with legends of the sport like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather Jr. years ago. Now, around the two-year anniversary of boxing great Muhammad Ali’s death in Scottsdale, Barrett’s training people who are in the fight of their lives against an incurable disease, which Ali also had.

Barrett’s gym actively trains around 60 Parkinson’s patients. Some come in to exercise once per week, others come in more frequently, sometimes up to five times per week.

Barrett’s calling to train people with the disease — a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects motor skills — began more than three years ago with a challenge at a different gym location in Old Town Scottsdale.

“That came about because of ego on my part,” Barrett said.

Barrett recalled that a woman, who he estimated to be in her mid-70s, asked him if he was a boxing trainer as she walked by the gym. Barrett was skeptical of the inquiry, because it was coming from someone who wouldn’t normally fit the boxing archetype. Nonetheless, he opted to see where the conversation would go by responding with a simple “yeah.”

“Can you train a Parkinson’s patient?” the woman asked, according to Barrett.

“Yes,” Barrett said. “Is it for you?”

Barrett admits he knew very little about the disease aside from big names in pop culture who have it, like actor Michael J. Fox. The woman clarified that the training would be for her husband. Barrett gave her his phone number, and she said she’d bring her husband in from Chicago the following month.

“After that, I got online and looked up Parkinson’s and realized I had my work cut out for me,” Barrett said.

The Phoenix native, who started boxing when he was just 8, said he also called neurologists he knew through acquaintances. Those doctors echoed Barrett’s thoughts that training Parkinson’s patients in the art of boxing would be a challenge.

A different pace

More than a decade after training with Tyson by running up South Mountain in Phoenix (Barrett said Tyson dusted everyone up the trail), Barrett made a promise to train someone whose physical abilities — due to both age and a debilitating, degenerative disorder — pale in comparison to “Iron Mike.”

Barrett and his new client Bob Wattel began training by doing very basic boxing, “just to see where he was at,” Barrett said. This included focusing on footwork and throwing punches with the proper form.

“Immediately, within two or three sessions, his wife was saying that she could see a difference in his walk,” Barrett said.

Because the gym in Old Town had stairs, which complicated things for a person with Parkinson’s, Bob’s wife, Roz Wattel, asked Barrett if he’d be willing to train her husband at their residence. This would also allow the two to train more days out of the week.

It ultimately prompted Barrett to move to a location that didn’t require the other clients he was training to climb stairs.

“At that point, I was already kind of connecting to the disease and connecting to the outcome that I was seeing him have,” Barrett said.

It may sound counterintuitive to use boxing training as a way to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s, a disease that an American Academy of Neurology study linked veterans to be at increased risk of if they previously suffered mild traumatic brain injuries.

“We know that there’s an association between concussion or traumatic brain injury and increased rate of Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. David Shprecher, a neurologist at Banner Boswell Medical Center in Sun City.

“So, it may be a factor that increases the risk, but it’s unclear if this is a direct cause or not,” he said.

Dr. Shprecher also said that although there’s still no clear causal link between Parkinson’s and brain injuries — like those suffered from boxing — head injuries could bring added stress to cells in the brain connected to the disease.

But there is evidence that boxing training — so long as no blows to the head are involved — can be helpful to those diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“When I first saw it, I thought this was really strange,” Roz said of boxing training for Parkinson’s patients, which she first learned about back in Chicago.

But after Bob started training, Roz noticed improvements in his posture, motion and balance.

“But the biggest thing was improvement in mood, because working with Marty was a real up,” Roz said with a smile. “It was the thing that he looked forward to during the week.”

According to a 2011 academic paper for the American Physical Therapy Association, patients displayed short- and long-term improvements in factors like balance, gait and quality of life after undergoing a boxing training program, in spite of the progressive nature of Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Stephanie Combs-Miller, a lead investigator of that study, initially became interested in boxing training for people with Parkinson’s from Rock Steady Boxing — a non-profit organization founded in Indiana in 2006 that works to provide boxing fitness to people with Parkinson’s.

Dr. Combs-Miller is also an associate professor and director of research at the college of health sciences at the Krannert School of Physical Therapy at the University of Indianapolis.

“We’ve done a number of studies even since that and we’ve found, consistently, improvement in function, improvement in walking ability, and balance, and strength and things like that,” Dr. Combs-Miller said. “To me, the most interesting thing that we’ve seen is that they improve their perception of their quality of life.”

Barrett explained that training a Parkinson’s patient and seeing the symptoms dissipate as a result of the exercise and training gave each of them immediate gratification. He added that when he’s training the “average Joes” who are sometimes boxing for vanity reasons, he doesn’t get the same satisfaction.

But while Barrett was seeing encouraging results with his first Parkinson’s client, one of Bob’s doctors initially expressed concern.

“One of his doctors said, ‘I don’t think you should box with him anymore. It’s probably a dangerous idea. He might fall,’” Barrett recalled.

Barrett asked the doctor to come watch his training. He vowed he could get Bob to jog.

The doctor responded with an ultimatum: If Barrett could make his patient jog, he’d buy him any piece of equipment Barrett wanted for the gym. If he didn’t, Barrett had to promise never to see his patient again, with the rationale that he was dying and needed peace.

When the doctor went to see his patient train, “He jogs about 15 yards, laughing and saying, ‘Look at me!’ ” Barrett recollected with a smile.

The doctor relented, bought the piece of equipment (a numbered boxing dummy) as promised, and even started sending more of his patients with Parkinson’s disease to train with Barrett.

Bob died in March 2018, and at the request of Roz and her family, Barrett spoke at his funeral. Roz said he moved the funeral procession to tears, but also made people laugh with anecdotes of his time spent with Bob.

In Bob’s honor, Barrett named his Parkinson’s training program “Bob’s Way.”

Punching through Parkinson’s

The secret to Barrett’s success in his mind is treating everyone like a fighter.

Nobody gets special treatment in the gym.

“The thing I find here is they push me,” Lane said. “So, it’s tough, but I feel 100 percent better.”

Lane said that he had previously gone to “cardio rehab,” which was more about monitoring him than giving him regimented exercises.

The opposite is true in Barrett’s gym, where Lane tests his cognitive skills by punching a numbered boxing dummy in various number sequences and puts that learning into practice by sparring in the ring.

“We’re boxing, but we’re not getting any blows,” Lane said of sparring. “We can throw a blow if we get in there.”

Under Barrett’s training, Lane has noticed positive results such as less shaking and more balance.

“That’s a key with Parkinson’s, and just getting old in general, is balance,” Lane said.

Denis Egan, who also trains at Barrett’s gym, said that inactivity is the worst thing for a person with Parkinson’s.

“You’ve got to get up, be active,” Egan said. “Not watch ‘Judge Judy’ … which I do.”

Harvey Karchmer, like Lane, enjoys sparring the most.

“A round or two of sparring will take it all out of you,” he said. “I have more fun doing that than anything else.”

Karchmer, who was diagnosed with a slow-progressing form of Parkinson’s, is part of a clinical trial in San Francisco. He said his doctor there is “very, very pro-boxing.”

Despite being a sport that many people may associate with causing Parkinson’s rather than helping to arrest it, as Bob Tedeschi wrote about for STAT News in 2016, many neurologists encourage their patients to participate in boxing training.

The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix embraced it for Parkinson’s patients. The center has run boxing classes since 2016.

Patty Hatton, a program coordinator at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center who coordinates two boxing classes, said it’s the type of training and exercise that can be beneficial.

“It’s a great way to combine a lot of different skill building in one activity,” Hatton said. “The neurologists here really support it because it’s another tool in the toolbox. It is a great program for people to work at a high level — get their heart rate up — because research shows us that working at high intensity is what really causes brain change.”

Dr. Russell Teames, a chiropractic neurologist who has referred patients to Barrett’s gym, said that rigorous, high-intensity exercise is often the best way to combat the disease.

“In certain cases, the (patients) that seem to tolerate exercise or neuro rehab really well — and they can tolerate a lot of it — I send them over to Marty,” Teames said.

Barrett said boxing training helped improve the quality of life for many individuals who’ve trained under him. It’s even resulted in those individuals’ family members telling Barrett anecdotes about the noticeable improvements they see from their loved ones at home. And while the exercise and subsequent improvement of symptoms remains a clear positive, it seems to be the sense of community that keeps those with Parkinson’s coming back for more training.

“I think it’s crucial that we have places like this that take Parkinson’s seriously, but not treat you as if you’re totally invalid,” Lane said.
Barrett knows that making people feel at ease in his gym is a big part of his responsibility as a trainer.

“They don’t care how much I know. They want to know how much I care,” he said.

Modern science has yet to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Medications and exercises can help curb symptoms but helping to improve quality of life each day is what motivates Barrett.

“We don’t perform any miracles. But we can mask some of the symptoms for a while,” he said.

Wearing a gray shirt with black athletic shorts, Lane stares down the opponent he’s sparring with in the ring — a young boxer who’s approximately 50 years his junior.

Barrett barks instructions from inside the ring: “Shoot that right hand! Shoot it!”

Lane follows a left jab by firing his right fist into the upper body of his backpedaling opponent.

Barrett shouts out words of encouragement, “Good! That’s it! Just like that!”

On the far back wall of 12th Round Fit is a canvas with a picture of Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, and one of his many quotes.

The quote says, “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.”

Editor’s Note: Ben Leibowitz is a student journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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