Patients hit back against Parkinson's at Troy gym

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Troy— Getting punched doesn’t sound like good therapy. It’s even less appetizing if you have Parkinson’s disease.

So how to explain the growing number of gyms and health clubs offering boxing as an antidote for the disorder?

Well, first of all, nobody is getting smacked.

Instead of each other, they hit trainer’s mitts and speed and heavy bags, said Mike Martelli, owner of The Boxing Rink in Troy. The more agile participants also skip rope, step through ladders and slap heavy rope against the floor.

The workout helps counter symptoms of Parkinson’s — loss of agility, endurance, strength, he said. Boxing also requires coordination.

“It helps with their balance,” said Martelli. “Boxers have to use different planes of motion.”

They may not be bopping each other but, make no mistake, they are warriors.

They are embroiled in a battle royal with a sickness that ravages their bodies. Their brains stop producing dopamine, which helps regulate movement.

Jim Kurz of Troy gets ready to participate in a boxing class for people with Parkinson’s disease at The Boxing Rink in Troy. The gym offers those fighting the disease classes to help counter such symptoms as loss of agility and strength.

The body freezes. The speech slows. The thinking becomes confused. It worsens over time, and there is no cure.

Standing up to this onslaught are people in their 60s and 70s wearing boxing gloves.

Because of their courage, the gyms and health clubs don’t refer to them as victims or patients or afflicted. They call them fighters.

“I want to be independent,” said fighter Ray Cummings of Shelby Township. “I’ve been independent my whole life. Why change it now?”

This novel way of treating Parkinson’s was discovered by accident.

Scott Newman, an Indianapolis prosecutor with the disease, had taken up boxing and found it improved his agility.

In 2006 he began Rock Steady Boxing, which has grown to 89 affiliates around the U.S. Besides The Boxing Rink, the other affiliate in Metro Detroit is the Beverly Hills Club.

While Newman’s discovery hasn’t been scientifically proven, medical research suggests he may be on to something.

A 2011 study in the Journal of American Physical Therapy Association found that two to three 90-minute sessions a week for nine months at Rock Steady yielded improvements in balance and walking.

A key to the therapy may be that it treats so many symptoms of Parkinson’s, from mental to physical ones, said researchers.

“Increasing evidence suggests that ongoing vigorous exercise may favorably influence this progression,” said Dr. Eric Ahlskog, a Mayo Clinic neurologist who has studied Parkinson’s for 30 years.

Finding a support group

A class at The Boxing Rink last week began with a dozen people gathered in a circle.

Their ages ranged from 53 to 86. Their ailments ran the gamut: tremors, slow movement, rigid muscles, muscle cramping.

The hands of one man were shaking so hard he hid them behind his back.

The walls held hockey and boxing photos and memorabilia, owing to the gym’s origins. Martelli opened it in 2014 to teach hockey players not to fight, which is against the rules, but “to defend themselves.”

In the circle, everyone introduced themselves, gave their ages and how long they’ve had Parkinson’s.

They sometimes talk about treatment, common problems or what’s happening in their lives, said Martelli.

It quickly became clear this wasn’t just an exercise class. It was a support group, a social gathering.

That’s one of the things Dan McEachin of Troy likes best about Rock Steady.

Parkinson’s can be isolating because it discourages people from leaving their homes, he said.

Rock Steady coaxes them from their abodes by offering therapy and the chance to socialize with people who are going through the same thing they are.

“It’s a community,” said McEachin, 64, a retired state social worker who was diagnosed two years ago. “We all share the same thing.”

They come to class up to four times a week.

After talking in the circle, they stretched and then walked in a circle, raising their knees. Some used walkers while others jogged.

They even exercised their voices, which also are affected by Parkinson’s. They screamed as loud and long as possible.

During the drills, Martelli barked at them good-naturedly.

A way to move

To keep the classes fresh, Martelli constantly changes the routine. Some sessions involve games. Others have singing and dancing.

At last week’s session, it was finally time to box.

With rock music playing, the fighters worked on the heavy bags, counting out the punches as they threw jabs, crosses, uppercuts and hooks.

Some hit the bags hard while others gently touched them.

“Keep punching, Phil,” exhorted Martelli. “I want to hear you. Keep it going. Time’s not up yet.”

The ones with more advanced cases of Parkinson’s are required to bring someone who helps them keep their balance during the drills.

The assistants, called corner people, held on to a belt around the fighter’s waist.

The punching exercises lasted three minutes and ended with a bell, just like a boxing match.

It was a mild workout but, because of the disease, most of the class was sweating and tired quickly.

Simon Zakalik of Farmington Hills had a second reason for being pooped. He is 70. He finished the heavy bag session in a chair.

At the end, he and his corner man, Jamie Stoops, high-fived each other.

Zakalik, a retired electrical engineer who was diagnosed in 1998, said five months of workouts have helped him walk without a walker.

“The whole thing is useful,” he said about Rock Steady. “Anything that gets us out and about and moving.”

The T-shirts of most of the men read: “In this corner, hope.”

Ray Cummings of Shelby Township, left, and Gonzalo Gonzalez of Royal Oak take instructions from The Boxing Rink owner Mike Martelli.

Quieting the ‘big bully’

After putting on his boxing gloves, Paul Bologna of St. Clair Shores jokingly asked a reporter if he wanted to fight.

But he quickly lost his will to tussle after a few minutes with the heavy bags. After the bell rang, he closed his eyes and sighed.

“If you’re not tired, you’re not doing it right,” he said.

Bologna, 63, a retired electrician who was diagnosed in 2011, said Rock Steady has helped improve his balance and lessen his tremors.

The program made him realize Parkinson’s doesn’t mean one can no longer be active.

“This is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “It got my butt moving again.”

Another fighter, Jim Walters of Troy, joined the program a few weeks ago but already feels different.

Before he got Parkinson’s in 2003, Walters, a supervisor in the Oakland County water department, was active, outgoing, garrulous.

The disease robbed him of that, he said.

“I’m like anyone else who retires. I want to go out in the sun,” he said. “I can’t do that.”

He tried other types of therapy but found them too simplistic, boring.

Rock Steady, with its boxing and games and singing, is fun, he said.

Walters’ son, Robert, who is his corner man, noticed the difference right away.

For the first time in a long time, Jim, 71, can climb the stairs in his two-story home, said Robert. His father is more attentive during conversations. His whole attitude seems better.

“It’s like a big bully,” Robert said about Parkinson’s. “But this allows him to fight the disease. It says: ‘You’re not eating my lunch.’”

Best of all, Jim said he is getting chatty again. The social butterfly is back.

Boxing therapy

Two places offer Rock Steady Boxing in Metro Detroit:

The Boxing Rink in Troy: (248) 817-5243 or

Beverly Hills Club in Beverly Hills: (248) 642-8500 or