Is Karate on Your Bucket List?
A few years ago, for martial arts instructor Harry Grimm's 50th birthday, his wife treated him to a trip to Bimini. On a snorkeling cruise, the captain of the boat noticed that Grimm was wearing a T-shirt from a seminar by motivational speaker Tony Robbins (who also, it should be mentioned, is a black belt in the Korean martial art of Taekwondo). As it turned out, the captain had once worked for Robbins as a researcher, and he shared with Grimm an interesting bit of research. When Robbins' organization surveyed middle-aged people about what they most wanted to do before they die, "the number one thing was swimming with dolphins," Grimm says. "The number two thing was getting a black belt."
That insight stayed on Grimm's mind when he went back home to Massachusetts, where he ran a successful Kenpo karate school. It made sense to him. Today, on any suburban strip, you're almost as likely to find a Taekwondo studio as a Starbucks, and Ultimate Fighting Championship competitions are becoming a bigger draw on pay-per-view cable than boxing.
But when boomers were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Asian-style martial arts were just gaining a toehold in the United States."People were always telling me, 'I wanted to do karate, but there weren't any schools around when I was young.'"
Grimm, now 57, eventually tapped into those bucket list ambitions to start a second act for himself on the Gulf Coast.
He and his wife moved to Naples, Fla., where he recently opened Bucket List Martial Arts, a school that focuses on giving students 45 and older a chance to learn how to punch, kick, block and sweep -- and in the process become more physically fit and mentally serene.
While some boomers might assume they're not agile or limber enough at this point in their lives to take up karate, Grimm -- who once taught a student in Massachusetts who started at age 77 -- is eager to prove them wrong. He says that martial arts training -- especially with an instructor who's familiar through personal experience with the travails of the middle-aged body -- actually can be an ideal form of exercise for middle-aged people.
"It helps with balance, coordination, and improves range of motion -- and things that we're supposed to be working to maintain as we get older," he says. "It has sophisticated, complex moments, which exercises your memory. And it's a lot more interesting way to build strength and cardiovascular fitness than climbing on an exercise bike or taking an aerobics class."
Grimm's belief in the fitness value of martial arts for middle-aged people is backed up by this 2004 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers who compared nine middle-aged practitioners of Soo Bahk Do, a Korean martial art similar to karate, found that they significantly out-performed a control group of nonexercisers on a wide range of measures, from aerobic capacity and flexibility to quadriceps strength and body-fat percentage. One particularly glaring comparison: The martial artists, who ranged from 40 to 60, could pump out an average of 47 push-ups in a minute, more than two-and-a-half times the amount the control group could manage.
To make martial arts more accessible and amenable to boomer newbies, Grimm designed a program of carefully structured 45-minute classes. He breaks down skills into bite-sized, easier-to-assimilate increments. Typically, students start with a dynamic stretching warmup of basic kicks, blocks and punches, which Grimm prefers to the more static stretching to which yoga devotees are accustomed. Then he likes to review the moves learned in the previous class and do some basic drills and work on the heavy bag to reinforce those skills. Next, Grimm will introduce a new maneuver, and students will pair up to get some hands-on, light-contact practice. Afterward, he sticks around to coach anybody who needs more help to get the idea.
To minimize the chance of injury and make beginning students more comfortable, Grimm doesn't require anyone to engage in contact free-sparring, usually a staple of martial-arts training. But for those who eventually want to progress to that step and develop the skills and self-control necessary, he's got the necessary safety equipment and supervisory experience. "We'd probably do that outside of class, in a clinic," he says. "There's no rush to get into it."
From a practical self-defense perspective, Grimm prefers to help students improve their street-awareness skills so they can spot and avoid potential trouble, and also instructs them on verbal de-escalation skills.
Those who stick with martial arts training, Grimm says, see steady progress. "I have students who couldn't kick above knee level (on a target), and after a month they're kicking hip high," he says. "And they're becoming more coordinated, as well." He adds: "We're not trying to create fighters here. The object is become a better person -- to get outside of yourself, and engage your brain in something different."
While Grimm's new school may have a unique focus on boomers, he's not the only one who sees martial arts as more than an after-school activity for kids on the days they don't have piano lessons. I took up a different martial art, kung fu, six years ago at the age of 48. While it's taken me more time and effort than younger students to progress, I'm now working toward earning a brown sash, one level below the expert level. I'm encouraged by A Black Belt at 50, an engaging blog written by a middle-aged south Floridian named John Edelson, who got into Kenpo after taking his son to a class and realizing that he wanted to be more than a spectator. If you're looking for a good inspirational book on the subject, try Sang H. Kim's Martial Arts After 40.
Have you taken up martial arts in midlife? I'd love to hear about your experience and welcome comments below.
Previous Post: Despite Advances, AIDS Poses New Risks
Next Post: Top Boomer Business Ideas