Practicing martial arts at Monkwise is demanding, often exhilarating, and a bit addictive. If you’re among the over-50 crowd, and a baby-boomer looking to beat the ever encroaching physical manifestations of aging, martial arts can bring many challenges. The benefits, however, can be truly amazing.
We are now learning that many aspects of aging can be slowed, or in some cases reversed. In his book, “Martial Arts over 40,” Dr. Sang H. Kim takes each physical and mental attribute, previously thought to be naturally depleted with age, and explains how exercise, specifically martial arts, can improve those attributes. Strength, agility, flexibility, balance, and memory are all aspects of martial arts training that can positively affect our health as we reach middle age and beyond.
Many doctors are prescribing Tai Chi and Qi Gong to help patients with health issues ranging from diabetes to arthritis. Qi Gong is thought to increase hormone production, prevent autoimmune diseases, and improve mental clarity and function.
In an article on martial arts in AARP [8/03], it was reported that:
Tai Chi also can improve balance, posture, flexibility, coordination, and strength. Studies have shown that older people who practice Tai Chi reduce their risk of falls.
So why isn’t everyone over 50 doing this?
I’ve asked many of my 50+ friends, why they don’t try martial arts for their workouts. The most typical answer has to do with familiarity. As adults we’ve successfully managed jobs, homes, families, joys and tragedies. We generally think we are competent at most things and if we’re not, we just hire someone to do it for us. Our workout routines may include following a leader, a trainer, or solitary work on an exercise bike or treadmill. So imagine walking into a room with a group of students, all ages, athletic, focused, picking up forms five moves at a time and we think, “I’m old, how can I ever do this?” We just don’t have that beginners mind any longer; we want to look cool from the very start.
It takes a special person to face the possibility of looking silly, because at 50+ you really can look quite uncomfortable trying your first mabu (horse stance). Diane, at 58, is a fit flight attendant doing martial arts at MonkWise. She told me that looking and feeling “stupid” was her primary concern starting martial arts. She has since met this challenge and feels like her classes at MonkWise make her feel young. Diane receives many compliments from co-workers about her newly found confidence and athleticism.
The pressure to excel in everything we do is very strong in older adults. . In an article in the Wall Street Journal regarding older adults and martial arts (5/10) the author wrote,
Instructors say many older students seem energized by working out with younger ones. And sometimes the energy is contagious. "Older students can be very inspirational," says Bill Pottle, the owner of the school where Mr. Roe [an older student] trains. "They often have an uncommon determination that can set a great example for younger people."
We have a lot to offer younger students in class. Whether they choose to take advantage of our wisdom, well… we can still enjoy their energy.
Jean, at 65 is a retired business manager who tried Tai Chi for the first time six months ago. Her first experience in class left her feeling intimidated, and guilty. She explained that she felt like she was holding back other students in the class and taking up practice time for classmates that came to help her. Her love of Tai Chi won out and she realized that first of all, everyone was focused on practicing and weren’t watching her at all, and secondly everyone has challenges. She learned to take what she likes to call her “baby steps” and she now feels great about her accomplishments.
It’s normal to feel anxious when you begin a new skill and especially surrounded by new people. It will take some time to get acclimated but most students in class and your instructors are happy to help.
If you are considering martial arts as a form of exercise, whether it be the relaxed and contemplative forms of Tai Chi and Qi Gong, or the more physically challenging courses of Kung Fu, there are a few things to consider:
· Check with your doctor. It’s always best to consult a physician before trying a new exercise routine. Discuss your strengths and weaknesses and be sure to pass the information along to your instructor(s) in class.
· Check in with your body. Be sure to take an internal and external assessment of your physical condition before each class session. Are there any injuries you need to report to your instructor? Do you have tightness in an area that needs to be warmed up or stretched? Always spend time warming up then gently stretching before class.
· Check in with your mind. Personal issues such as work, family responsibilities, moods, etc. will affect your performance in class. If you are angry, upset, or frustrated you may wish to spend time meditating or running through forms before class. You will likely feel much better after your workout, but releasing negative emotions initially may prevent an injury to yourself or another student.
· Check your competitive instincts. You have great potential as an older student but you also take much longer to heal after an injury. Be patient with yourself and ask for assistance from your instructors and fellow students. Be sure that you know your limitations and that you express them when doing partner work. Learn to respect your own journey and not compare yourself to younger and/ or more experienced students.
Other common concerns:
What happens if I get injured? Surprisingly injuries are rare but if they do happen be sure to give yourself time to heal. Consult with Shifu Jung or Shifu Woolsey on the proper way to treat muscle and tendon issues. Shifu Jung is trained in Chinese medicinal techniques and can often suggest dietary changes to help your body cope with the new exercise routine. Keep practicing. If your injury is located from the waist down you can work on arm movements or weapons. If it’s from the waist up you can walk through your routine. If your back is having issues, go through the routines in your head or create diagrams on paper. [In Kung Fu, you are not required to “spar” with other students until your body has adapted to the beginning workouts. The beginning routines really will increase your strength and flexibility, both of which are vital to avoiding injures. Especially the Injuries that can happen if one is not a martial artist, like using muscles long forgotten, or tripping over a rug at home.]
If you are having problems remembering routines, try memorizing one step beyond what you know. It will help even if you only remember turning in a specific direction, a hand movement, or the next foot movement. With experience you’ll start seeing patterns and will retain more. Write notes about the forms, the simple act of writing something down will often help you remember. Practice small sections of a form rather than start at the beginning every time. Break longer forms down into smaller sets of moves. Forgive yourself for memory lapses, they happen to everyone. Don't give up, remember that learning a sequence of movement will actually improve cognitive function over time. That is why martial arts like Kung Fu or Tai Chi are so often recommended by doctors for those struggling with memory issues. Our mind, just like our bodies falls under the category "Use it or lose it".
Once you get past the self-consciousness, you will find that the physical limitations will begin to lessen after every week. You will find balance and confidence, and you can amaze your friends and neighbors with your sword wielding technique. At Monk Wise you will be accepted as an equal, expected to perform as an equal, and feel like you've found a new healthier person inside your baby-boomer body.
By Janet Hough
Janet is 55 years old and studies Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Kung Fu at MonkWise Martial Arts Academy
Martial Arts After 40, Sang H. kim Ph.D., Turtle Press CT, 2000, Print
Martial Arts Made Friendly, AARP, 29 Aug. 2003. WEB
Kicking From the Hip, Wall Street Journal, Robert Johnson, 15 May 2010. WEB