If you think it feels good when you blow off some stress with a hard workout, slip into 15-year-old Jake Eisenstat's skin for a while. With a diagnosis of severe attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and executive dysfunction, the Potomac, Md., teen has so much trouble focusing that his parents school him at home. His stamina is poor, and the development of his spatial awareness is delayed.
Recently he was in the newly reopened Fitness for Health gym in Rockville, Md., using the Trazer, a floor-sized adaptation of the Dance Dance Revolution game, working on his agility and anticipation. The exercise also helps improves his concentration, at least for a while.
He's "getting this incredible workout," said his mother, Diane. "It's like a mom's dream."
Like any gym, Fitness for Health is open to anyone who wants to join. But owner Marc Sickel, who grew up with learning disabilities and motor processing difficulties of his own, has spent 27 years providing help for clients with similar problems. His referrals come from child psychologists, occupational therapists, physicians and other caregivers, he said.
"When I got out of school, I wanted to take a lot of my own challenges and turn them into strengths," he said. He said he treated his own brother, who had suffered a debilitating stroke, at the gym, with good results.
Sickel's approach is to pair physical exercise with cognitive drills whenever possible in the belief, which increasingly is supported by research, that mental acuity is enhanced when it is accompanied by exercise. So, for example, a physical exercise that involves tossing a ball against a wall also might include working verbally with numbers at the same time.
"I'm continually looking at ways I can get the brain working so I'm integrating the cognitive piece," Sickel said. People with disabilities are generally referred by other professionals, then undergo a full evaluation at Fitness for Health at a cost of $175, Sickel said. Prices vary for individual and group sessions and the kinds of work needed, he said.
Also that day was Braden Deardorff, 26, who was born with an extremely rare and degenerative neurological disorder that has wracked his body and mind. There is no cure. As Braden painstakingly stepped his way down a 48-foot-long trampoline, working on his balance with the aid of a gym staffer, his mother, Veronica, considered his progress over the past nine months.
"He's walking," she marveled. "He walked in here. It is amazing. It is just amazing what he's doing.
"I thank God for this place," she said.
Sickel has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology from the University of Maryland and is a certified athletic trainer. Last year, he signed a consent order with the Maryland State Board of Physical Therapy Examiners in which he admitted providing physical therapy to a patient without being licensed to do so, according to public records. He was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine, the records show.
He said the fine resulted from his attempt to help a young client's mother, who was in a car accident. He said he received verbal approval from the woman, who had checked with her insurance company, to provide the services, but should have gotten it in writing. The insurance company complained to the board when Sickel's bill was submitted.
Sickel has built a gym that in some ways resembles a huge video arcade. Cones and sawhorses are out, flashing lights and Kinect Sports-like motion detectors are in. There is a glow-in-the-dark climbing wall whose routes can be changed with a series of lights. One workout involves running and jumping from spot to spot in order to block a series of lights cascading down a video screen.
"You're focused on the game. You're not focused on working out," said Roberta Liss of Potomac, who is not disabled but works out with trainers at the gym. The exercises encourage hand-eye coordination, but "you don't realize it as you're doing it."
The highlight of the room has to be a "Mission: Impossible"-style laser maze that is used for agility exercises. The barriers can be stationary or set in motion, and the speed at which they move can be varied, increasing or decreasing the degree of difficulty.
For Veronica Deardorff, the high-tech gadgetry is less important than the progress her son has made the old-fashioned way, working with the gym staff.
"He's not done," she said. "He's getting stronger and stronger every day."