Exercise with a kick: Kickboxing in Herts (for all ages!)
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Heather Harris puts her best foot forward as she takes on the challenge of learning to kickbox in her 50s
Jumping up and down in a dressing gown or chopping bits of wood with my bare hands has never really appealed. As a child, when all my friends were enrolling in the local judo and karate courses, I was sitting at home – also in my dressing gown, but watching Saturday-morning TV.
Roll on a few decades and I find myself running around a room in bare feet punching and kicking various punch bags and pads held by a very trusting stranger. She was in real danger of ending up looking like Kung Fu Panda, such was my lack of balance. Luckily, our instructor Chris Allen was on hand to make sure the kickboxing class I had enrolled in all went by with lots of sweat but no tears.
‘There is a misconception about martial arts being aggressive when in fact it is incredibly safe and controlled,’ explains Allen, who set up Tring Martial Arts Academy after giving up a high-pressure corporate job.
It was his enthusiasm that persuaded me to leave my running shoes at the door and try this form of exercise, which attracts as many women as men.
‘We now have 260 members ranging from four to 55 years and over 30 different day and evening classes,’ Allen explains at an event to celebrate the academy’s 10th anniversary.
Classes range from kickboxing to combat fitness and Krav Maga, a self-defence discipline developed by the Israeli police which promises to burn off 800 calories an hour.
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It certainly worked for club member Laura Hobson; she dropped from a size 20 to a size 12 after starting classes at the club. ‘I was four stone overweight and couldn’t touch my toes when my partner nagged me to try kickboxing,’ she says. ‘Five years later, I’m going three times a week and I have never had more energy.’ She adds that one of the main attractions of martial arts is its clear structure, so there is always a fresh goal to aim for.
It’s this structure that makes it an ideal sport for children who struggle with more traditional school sports and favouritism. As Allen explains, ‘Many children who come to us are literally sidelined in sports such as football and netball but thrive when given the strict boundaries of our classes.’
As one parent discovered, ‘My son has only been coming for a few months but we have seen a remarkable improvement in his self-esteem and discipline. He has additional needs but the staff have worked with him to make sure he gets the most out of every visit.’
Another commented on how the academy had helped her son to make new friends, ‘He had issues with bullying at school and coming here has allowed him to control his anger and frustrations.’
Allen regularly visits local schools to give talks about self-defence but also ties this in with an anti-bullying message. His 10 Ways to Defeat a Bully Without Fighting course is a 10-week programme for six- to 12-year-olds which includes role-playing and physical training with each child.
This extra dimension of martial arts has seen it rise in popularity and there are now more than 685 registered martial arts centres in England – more,surprisingly, than in Japan, China and Korea, which are all kicking their heels at more than 30 places behind in the world table of martial-arts popularity.
Bob Sykes, editor of Martial Arts Illustrated, says, ‘Our centres offer a huge range of disciplines that all come under a general martial-arts heading, but the most popular are still karate, kickboxing and tae kwon do.’ He also explains that we don’t have to be a Keanu Reeves in The Matrix or Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels or even that scary nine-year-old karate girl on Britain’s Got Talent. ‘The intensity can vary. Thai bo sets kickboxing to music, T’ai Chi slows kung fu to the pace of yoga but Aikido with its swift strikes and rolls could give you a few bruises!’
The only thing of mine that was bruised was my ego. I had been assuming that as a regular runner, kickboxing would be a walk in the park. This idea was soon kicked into touch. At the end of the class, I was sweating and crimson. The following day I ached in muscles that clearly had not been worked before but I did feel energised enough to sign up for more. I may never be Bruce Lee, but even the panda had to start somewhere.