Written by Katie Turpen
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Martin Juarez’s voice can be heard outside of his gym and, quite likely, a mile down the road.
“Just 10 more seconds! Don’t stop!” the former professional boxer shouts as he runs around his gym making sure to give personalized attention to each participant. It’s hard to not feed off the energy in the room.
“Shout as loud as you can!” he instructs the group, “Who cares if there’s a library next door?”
After competing in over 100 amateur fights in the country and in Japan, Juarez knows what it means to be a fighter that doesn’t quit. However, he says the true heroes are his boxers with Parkinson’s disease who have much more at stake when they step in the ring. They are fighting for their lives.
Juarez is the first to bring the national boxing program for Parkinson’s patients, Rock Steady Boxing, to Birmingham, where he teaches three classes a week at his studio off of Montevallo Road. Juarez treats each participant—ages 39 to 76—like a professional boxer.
“When they step through those doors, they are no longer patients. They are boxers,” he says. “My father fought professionally, and he said to always make workouts as engaging as possible. And that’s what I aim to do.”
Juarez attributes the classes’ success to his multiple volunteers, including his wife and children, who are very active with the program. Several volunteers say they come because they just can’t get enough of the positive energy Juarez creates.
Parkinson’s is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement and often includes tremors. Boxing can help symptoms by moving the body in all planes of motion and providing a continuously changing routine throughout a workout.
The class begins with a series of warmups: opening and closing hands, lifting arms over the head, doing jumping jacks, jumping rope, and writing out the date with their nose.
“It gets chaotic in here, but it’s a controlled chaotic,” says Juarez with a smile.
After the warmup, class participants go through a series of stations set up throughout the gym. When Juarez sounds the buzzer, everyone switches. These stations focus on a variety of different movements including using a baseball hat to smash a tire, tying and untying shoe laces, and balancing on a wobble board. There’s also typical boxing equipment such as punching bags and boxing gloves.
The class is leading to significant results for many. Juarez says one man originally had to be driven to class. Today, he is able to drive himself. Another participant is no longer in a wheelchair. Still another struggled with insomnia and feelings of depression at the start of his diagnosis. Now, he finds himself sleeping and feeling better.
Kathy Kononchek has been coming to Rock Steady Boxing since it started this past May. She recalls walking into the class using her cane.
“When the class was finished and I was out the door, I realized I had completely forgotten it,” she says. “That’s how I knew this was working.”
Class participants get an assessment every few months, and Kononchek has seen improvement in her quality of life.
“I’m feeling very optimistic. This is the best exercise I’ve ever done,” she says.
Karon Link, another participant, is even looking to get professionally certified to teach the boxing classes. She is amazed at the results and loves that the class is fun.
“This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “It’s hard to believe it’s exercise.”
With the success of the program, Juarez is looking to take things a step further by starting a Rock Steady nonprofit organization in the near future. Whether it’s helping one of his boxers to shuffle a deck of cards, start driving a car again, or simply get a good night’s sleep, each milestone reached is meaningful to him.
“Everybody walks of out of here with a smile on their face,” he says. “If I can give these people a better quality of life then I have succeeded.”
Tags: january 2017