Eleven fighters, all training against the same opponent, gathered recently, just as they do most every Monday and Friday afternoon at Thump Gym in Kendall.
Their adversary is relentless, and these six women and five men — plus millions more throughout the world — will need to fight for their lives just to stay in the ring.
Their opponent — Parkinson’s disease — is undefeated so far, but a program called Rock Steady Boxing is giving those afflicted a fighting chance.
Rock Steady was developed in Indianapolis in 2006 by a Parkinson’s patient and former prosecutor, Scott Newman. Participants don’t get hit —this is non-contact boxing. Rather, they punch a heavy bag, do foot work, stretch, and incorporate resistance exercises and aerobic training.
Steve Arintok, the 56-year-old owner of Thump Gym, has been trained to teach the class, geared specifically for those who have Parkinson’s.
Stephanie Combs-Miller, associate professor at the University of Indianapolis’ Krannert School of Physical Therapy, recently conducted the first major study on the effects of boxing therapy on Parkinson’s. Over a two-year period, 88 volunteers, half of whom participated in Rock Steady Boxing, were tracked every six months using physical therapy assessments.
“We found that people who exercise in a boxing program demonstrated a higher level of function,’’ she said in a release about a lecture she was giving on the subject.
The theory is that the combination of activities connected to the boxing helps develop strength, agility, endurance and flexibility. Over time, the participants who did the program demonstrated significantly better balance and walking function, compared with Parkinson’s patients who chose other forms of exercise.
At Thump, Arintok gathers his students in a circle after each class. He speaks, and they repeat after him:
“I’m blessed that every day is a new day.
“I’m a fighter. I never quit.
“I’m a fighter. I never give up.
“I’m a fighter. I’m always tough.
“Fight back on three … One, two, three … FIGHT BACK!”
Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. The most obvious symptoms include tremors, rigidity, difficulty with walking and slowness of movement. Most cases occur after age 50.
Later, thinking and behavioral problems may arise, with dementia occurring in the advanced stages of the disease. Depression is the most common psychiatric symptom.
Parkinson’s occurs when nerve cells in the brain become impaired or die. These cells produce a brain chemical known as dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that, when working, sends messages within the brain to produce movements. The disease is named after the English doctor, James Parkinson, who in 1817 published the first detailed description of the disorder.
In recent years, actor Michael J. Fox and boxer Muhammad Ali — who both have Parkinson’s — have raised public awareness of the disease. Globally, there are 6.3 million people suffering from Parkinson’s, including nearly 1 million in the United States.
Joe Glick, who spent three decades as a personal-injury trial lawyer, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s on Nov. 12, 2012. He was 54.
The first symptom he noticed was limping with his left leg. One day, while taking a shower, Glick noticed he couldn’t make circles with his left hand. Alarmed, he went to see a doctor, who told him he had Parkinson’s.
“Shock and then depression … devastation,” Glick said.
After three months of self pity, Glick got some tough love from his wife, Sharon.
“She told me you can sit here and cry in bed and you can ruin the rest of your life and my life and our children’s lives,” Glick said, “or you can have this become your legacy.”
Glick joined Park Optimists Miami, which offers therapy, exercise and support groups for Parkinson’s patients. Glick is now the president of the organization.
Glick also got into tai chi, a Chinese martial art, and plays tennis twice a week.
But then he read about boxing and its positive effect on his disease.
“Somebody did a study,” Glick said, “and found that boxing is good for almost everything that ails a Parkinson’s patient.”
When Glick found out about Rock Steady, he called the gym closest to his Kendall home and found Thump Gym, 8100 SW 81st Dr.
Glick connected with Arintok, who has been an amateur boxer and trainer for most of his life. He also has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has taught combat courses to police officers.
Arintok was also very close to his aunt, Maria DeGuzman, who died of Parkinson’s in 2007.
“I couldn’t have met a more knowledgeable guy or a more empathetic guy,” said Glick, who now boxes three times a week, including one private lesson.
After agreeing to become partners in the Rock Steady venture, Glick and Arintok flew to Indianapolis to get certified, which required four days of intensive instruction. Arintok was certified in August.
“You learn about Parkinson’s, the symptoms, the ill effects,” Arintok said. “You meet with movement specialists and learn the methodology of the Rock Steady program. You learn a lot.
“It was overwhelming for me, emotionally, having gone through it with my aunt.”
Arintok learned that each exercise in Rock Steady has a Parkinson’s-related purpose. He has his students yell, for example, to counter the soft-voice syndrome. Stretching eases stiffness and punching steadies the tremors.
Most importantly, the footwork used in boxing improves coordination and balance.
“It’s remarkable,” Glick said. “I’m definitely a lot stronger now. It’s helped with my balance. Before, I was falling all over the place.”
GOING THE DISTANCE
Once Glick decided to make his battle against Parkinson’s his legacy, he came up with three goals:
“I want to live in the moment,” he said. “I want to make every day the best day possible. And I want to help everyone I come in contact with to make their day better.”
That’s what he, Arintok and his assistant, Gloria Dacosta, a competitive fighter who helps teach the class, are doing with Rock Steady.
“People tend to do things that are fun,” Arintok said. “But it’s also hard work. If you are ready, we will kick your butt. Most Parkinson’s patients are coddled. Our first instinct is to be cautious. But that’s something I learned in Indianapolis — make it challenging, and they’re grateful.”
Count Andy Williams, 75, among the grateful ones. Although he lives in Hollywood, he makes the trip to Thump twice a week.
Williams, who was diagnosed four years ago, has lost his ability to taste food. But while that is not fixable, Williams said, his balance is improving due to Rock Steady.
“What I’m working on is the ability to not fall over,” he said. “When I lean forward, I start to get shaky.”
Williams said he has noticed that his hands are shaking less since starting Rock Steady.
“I feel nonstop enthusiasm for punching that bag,” Williams said. “There is no feeling sorry. You have a challenge, and you meet it by going full blast.’’
Arintok said his fighters look out for each other. If one doesn’t show up for class, they check up on that person.
“This,” Arintok said, “is easily the most rewarding thing I’ve done in this industry.”
If you go
What: Rock Steady Boxing program.
Where: Thump Gym, 8100 SW 81st Dr., Kendall.
When: Mondays from 1 to 2:30 p.m. and Fridays from 2:30 to 4 p.m.
Cost: $65 a month.