12th Round Fit boxing gym trains patients with Parkinson’s disease
July 23, 2018
By Ben Leibowitz
As Robert “Bob” Lane wrapped his hand, boxing trainer Marty Barrett landed a verbal jab: “Let’s go, fat boy!”
Lane, 71, looked over his shoulder to see Barrett smirking. “I guess that’s me. I say all these nice things about you,” Lane replied, prompting laughter.
Barrett, who towers over Lane’s 5-foot frame, playfully rubbed Lane’s shoulders as Lane pulled on his boxing gloves to start his day of training.
Lane was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013 and has been training with Barrett at his 12th Round Fit boxing gym since it opened in 2016. Barrett trained with such greats as Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather Jr. years ago. Now, around the second anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s death in Scottsdale, Barrett is training people who are in the fight of their lives against an incurable disease, which the boxing legend also had.
Barrett’s gym actively trains about 60 Parkinson’s patients. Some come in to exercise once a week, others more frequently, sometimes five times a 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 in Old Town Scottsdale.
“That came about because of ego on my part,” Barrett said. He recalled a woman, probably in her mid-70s, who walked by the gym and asked whether he was a boxing trainer. Curious to see where the inquiry might go, he replied, “Yeah.”
“Can you train a Parkinson’s patient?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” Barrett said. “Is it for you?”
No, the training would be for her husband. Barrett gave her his phone number, and she said she’d bring her husband from Chicago the next month.
Barrett admitted he knew very little about the disease, aside from the fact that some celebrities have it, including actor Michael J. Fox. “I got online and looked up Parkinson’s and realized I had my work cut out for me,” he 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 boxing would be a challenge.
He began training one of his first clients with Parkinson’s, Bob Wattel, with very basic boxing “just to see where he was at.” They focused 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 recalled.
Because the gym in Old Town had stairs, which complicated things for someone with Parkinson’s, Bob’s wife, Roz Wattel, suggested training her husband in their home. This also would allow them to train more often. Barrett moved 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.
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 (in Chicago), I thought this was really strange,” Roz Wattel said of boxing for Parkinson’s patients. But after Bob started training, she noted 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 improvements in such factors as balance, gait and quality of life after undergoing a boxing training program, despite the progressive nature of Parkinson’s.
Dr. Stephanie Combs-Miller, a lead investigator of that study, initially became interested in boxing training for Parkinson’s patients from Rock Steady Boxing, a nonprofit founded in Indiana in 2006. “We’ve done a number of studies even since that and we’ve found, consistently, improvement in function, improvement in walking ability, balance, strength and things like that,” said Combs-Miller, who is associate professor and director of research at the College of Health Sciences at the Krannert School of Physical Therapy at the University of Indianapolis. “To me, the most interesting thing that we’ve seen is that they improve their perception of their quality of life.”
The secret to his success, Barrett said, 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 had previously gone to cardio-rehab training, which was more about monitoring than regimented exercises. The opposite is true in Barrett’s gym, where Lane tests his cognitive skills by punching a numbered boxing dummy in various sequences, then puts that learning into practice by sparring in the ring. “We’re boxing, but we’re not getting any blows,” Lane said. “We can throw a blow if we get in there.”
Lane has noticed positive results, such as reduced shaking and increased balance. “That’s a key with Parkinson’s, and just getting old in general, is balance,” he said.
Denis Egan, who also trains at Barrett’s gym, said inactivity is the worst thing for someone with Parkinson’s. “You’ve got to get up, be active,” Egan said.
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.”
On the back wall of 12th Round Fit is a picture of Muhammad Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix has run boxing classes for Parkinson’s patients since 2016. The Ali photo at 12th Round Fit contains one of his many quotes: “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.”