Monday, April 30, 2012

Overcoming back pain

Today's topic is slightly off the point of martial-arts training for seniors, but it's something worth examining.  Let's face it: one of the main reasons older athletes give up a sport is "back problems."  So if we can overcome the back issues, perhaps we can all get off the couch and back into training.
   Here in America we've been taught in countless ways -- often through TV commercials or by doctors who don't look deeply enough into our symptoms -- to believe that we're suffering an epidemic of fragile, out-of-kilter backs that are ready to "go out" if we even think about sports after a certain age.  While it's certainly true that millions of Americans suffer from debilitating back pain [and for a long time I was one of them], it's absolutely not true that all back pain should be a reason to give up sports.
   The book that changed my thinking -- and my life, to be more precise -- is Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by John E. Sarno, M.D.  A friend of mine recommended the book nearly 20 years ago, when I had such extreme lower back pain that I could hardly walk across the street.  He told me that the book had worked a small miracle in his life and that maybe I'd find it useful.
   Here's a true story: a got on a plane in Hartford, CT, barely able to walk.  While flying to Florida I read Dr. Sarno's book from cover to cover; it's a slender, very readable paperback first published in 1991.  By the time I got off the plane in Florida, I was walking normally and was able to return to my normal exercise routines.  No drugs.  No surgery.  No physical therapy.  And no special exercises.
    Early in the book Dr. Sarno makes it clear that if an MRI or X-rays have shown that you are suffering from a true physical problem, his book may not be the right answer.  But for the rest of us -- and perhaps most of us -- the problem is not actually physical but mental.  Okay, the pain is physical.  Lower-back pain is sometimes excruciating.  But the fundamental cause, Sarno says, is mental.  To make a long story short, he indicates that the subconscious mind creates the pain in order to keep us from examining conflicts in our lives.  We're not talking about the simple stress of daily living.  We're talking about inner conflicts that we need to recognize and resolve; once we do that, we defeat the subconscious mind's ability to create lower-back pain.
    Yes, this sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?  Get rid of back pain just by changing the way you think!  But I now keep two copies of Healing Back Pain on my bookshelf: one for me to reread every now and then, and one to lend to family and friends who are experiencing either back pain or other painful symptoms that in Sarno's view are triggered by the same basic mind/body phenomenon.  The phrase "Read the book" comes up quite often in my family.  Whenever someone talks about back pain, shoulder pain, or even migraines and heart palpitations, I say, "Read the book."  And everyone knows which book I'm talking about.
    Most of us don't need to fear lifting, twisting, punching, or kicking.  For most of us back pain isn't a physical ailment.  It's an unpleasant trick that the subconscious mind plays on us.  To learn why and how the mind does this and why we are able to eliminate the problem from our lives, read the book.
    Healing Back Pain may be your way back into training.  If you do read the book and find that it works a small miracle in your life, please let us know so that we can share your story.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Training alone

One of the major strengths of martial-arts training is that you can experience real-life fighting situations by practicing your "forms."  Forms come by various names, according to your martial-arts style, but they all feature an imagined battle with multiple opponents.  As you progress from one rank to the next, you learn new forms, each highly choreographed to incorporate additional offensive and defensive techniques and combinations of techniques.  And by the time you have mastered let's say 10 or 12 forms, you will have established  "muscle memory" of a rather large arsenal of important kicks, strikes, and blocks.
     In addition, you will have learned how one technique can flow naturally into another.  For example, you learn how a left high block moves naturally into a right middle punch, or how after executing a double open-hand block to the left you can swing your body 180 degrees into a double side kick.  Because each form follows a pattern of moves that you must execute properly and in strict sequence, you are continually benefiting from the wisdom of the masters who created these forms as a means of assuring that every student of a particular martial-arts style has learned the fundamentals properly.  In this way, as an example, a student who has learned Taekwondo form Koryo while studying in Korea will execute the moves in the same way as a student who learned the form from a qualified instructor in Texas or Minnesota.
     Although the full body of training that you experience in your school may vary greatly from what someone learns in another school of the same style, what doesn't change is the forms.  These are established by that style's highest governing body and are standard from one school to the next.
     If you have never studied the martial arts, you need to begin in the company of a trained instructor who will teach you the basics and introduce you to his or her style's forms.  You will learn the forms in the proper sequence as you move from, let's say, white belt to black belt, and you will be required to master the individual techniques.  Once you know the forms -- if, for instance, you have learned the forms in a martial-arts school but must now practice on your own -- you don't need a training partner in order to engage in "hand to hand" combat.  By practicing your forms diligently, you are preparing yourself for self-defense in the real world.
     In the April 18th post about "Inspiration" you'll find a link to a black-belt form demonstrated by Taekwondo Grandmaster Kyu Hyung Lee.  You'll see what a form should look like when executed by someone who has devoted his life to the martial arts.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Spotlight on: A senior-friendly school

Although most readers of "Seniors in the Martial Arts" are New Jersey residents, we're always happy to acknowledge the efforts of senior-friendly martial arts schools elsewhere in the U.S.  Today the spotlight is on High Kicks Taekwon-Do up in Rochester, New Hampshire.  The school is operated by head instructor Gary L. Arkerson, a 3rd-degree black belt certified by the International Taekwon-Do Federation.  He aims to have the school accessible to "people of all athletic abilities," and he gets high marks when it comes to accommodating seniors.
    First, he offers a seniors-only [55+] class every Tuesday from 10:00-11:00 a.m.  Here you have two wins: seniors can train in the company of folks who understand that age often brings with it some physical limitations; and the class is held in the morning, a major plus since many senior citizens can't tolerate intense workouts at night.  Second, seniors can participate in a Saturday "all adults" morning class that runs from 10:00-11:00.  Better still, the Saturday class actually kicks off at 9:30 with a half hour "stretching and balancing" session.  And get this: visitors can attend the Saturday stretching and balancing session for free.  Talk about friendly.
    Even if you don't live in New Hampshire, you should check out this school's website.  The training hall is a knockout, as you'll see when you reach the homepage.  The website's motto is, "A Black Belt is a White Belt who never quit."  The NEVER QUIT idea is one that we wholeheartedly endorse. 
     Two thumbs up to Gary L. Arkerson and High Kicks Taekwon-Do in Rochester, N.H.  If you know of other senior-friendly schools, please let us know.  We'll try to help spread the word.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The "Duh" Stretch

Back around 1971 I was unceremoniously introduced to what I would now call the "Duh Stretch."  I was in a martial-arts class sitting on the floor with my legs spread as wide as I could get them.  Every few seconds I would lean forward and attempt to pull myself forward, stretching the groin and hamstring muscles.  An assistant instructor, who thought he knew a lot more than he actually did, came up behind me and without asking if I wanted some help just pushed me down from my upper back.  Well, I did go lower, but I tore a hamstring muscle in the process.
    Ever since then I have considered stretching to be a solitary activity.  I believe in static stretching: you extend a given stretch to the point of your personal limit, then hold that position for roughly 30 seconds.  Holding the stretch for less than 30 seconds may not increase your flexibility over time, while holding the stretch for more than 30 seconds can possibly damage the muscle in question.  So it looks as though the proper length of holding the stretch is about 30 seconds according to all the scientific literature I have been able to find online.
    The next logical question is, "Should I stretch before or after exercise?"  The best answer seems to be the following: do a serious range-of-motion warm-up for at least 5 minutes -- riding a stationary bike if you plan to stretch your legs, for instance -- and then stretch gently.  Then go gently into your martial-arts routine; keep the kicks and punches light at first, and gradually build up intensity.  Finally, do your serious stretching after the full workout, when your body is completely warmed up.  You'll notice two things in this bit of advice: 1. the word gently is key; you score no extra points for injuring yourself by playing Bruce Lee during the warm-up phase.  2.  You need to invest a fair amount of time to stretching each time you train.  How often you train is a function of many things: how old you are; what sort of shape you're in at the time; whether you still work outside the home, and such.  As always, the best answer is do all you can with what you've got.  If you're 60 or 70, your flexibility won't be what it was at age 25.  That's just how it works, folks.  But your flexibility at 60 or 70 can be radically better than that of someone who spends 14 hours a day in front of the television set.  
    Do you know a senior-friendly martial-arts school in your area?  A school that welcomes senior citizens and recognizes their common training limitations?  Let us know about the school, and we'll gladly tell others about it in this blog.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's the right martial art for you?

Today's question has two right answers.
     1.  If you're a veteran martial artist, your current style is right for you.  Debating which martial art is better than another is like arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.  Now, if you want to begin learning a second or third martial art after age 50, by all means go for it.  Learning new things helps your brain stay young.  But don't drop your current style because someone told you it's not "right."
     2.  If you've never tried the martial arts, then the "right" style is the one that feels most comfortable for your over-50 body.  Many martial-arts schools will offer low-cost or even free trial lessons, so you should check out several styles before you decide what feels best.  In addition to assessing how welcome the head instructor and students make you feel, you should look to see whether the training seems to favor hand techniques over leg techniques, or leg techniques over hand techniques, or jumping/spinning kicks over . . . well, you get the idea.  If your upper body is relatively weak, maybe a style that favors kicking is best for you.  But if you've got a powerful upper body and poor hip flexibility, then maybe you should look for the school that focuses on punching, grappling, and the like.
     When I first began dabbling in the martial arts back around 1968, I tried several styles before settling on taekwondo.  At the time I weighed about 140 pounds soaking wet and didn't think that trading punches with muggers would get me very far.  What I found in taekwondo was a martial art that emphasized strong kicking techniques.  This meant that I could keep attackers at leg's length rather than arm's length, and it suggested that my kicks would deliver more force than an opponent's fists.  Had I been 6'4" and 220 pounds, maybe I would have made a different choice.
     Something else that you absolutely must consider if you're over 50 -- and especially if you're perhaps 60 or 70 -- is the intensity of the training involved.  Does the school offer a class for seniors only, or will you be mixed in with students who are 18 or 20?  Trying to keep up with 20-year-olds, especially if the training involves sparring, can be a losing game.  Related to this is the school's schedule.  If adult classes are held exclusively at night -- around 8:00 p.m., let's say -- you should ask your doctor whether an intense workout at that time of day is something your body will accept.  As it happens, mine won't.  I can tolerate high-intensity workouts early in the day, but the same workout at night will generate heart-rhythm problems.  There's no point in fighting nature on this.  If you're 65, not 25, learn to adapt.
     Bottom line: The right martial art is the one that gets you off the couch and into the training hall.  If you've got a how-to story you'd like to share -- something that will inspire other seniors to either resume or take up the martial-arts life for the first time -- please share it with us.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Warming up

Okay, so when you were 21 you could just start kicking the heavy bag without warming up.  It wasn't a great idea even back then, but your body was willing to accept the stress.  If you're now 55, 75, or 95, attempting to kick even thin air is a bad idea unless you've warmed up properly.  So here are a couple of tips to keep you in training and out of the doctor's office.
    Begin by gently riding a stationary bike -- preferably a recumbent or reclining bike [much easier on the lower back than a traditional bike] -- for at least five minutes, but longer as you get older.  This slowly warms up all the core muscles and joints you'll be using when you do your forms or practice kicks.
    Next, devote at least 30 minutes to gentle stretching.  DO NOT use the old ballistic stretches that we were taught in high school -- you know, bouncing up and down to generate extra stress on the muscles.  When you stretch these days, you should use what's called "static stretching" -- that is, holding a particular stretch for 30 seconds without bouncing, pushing, or pulling in order to generate extra stress on the muscle or joint involved.  Your sequence of stretches should include the hamstrings, quads, hip joint, and lower back.  If you plan to do some punching, then you need to warm up and stretch your upper body as well.  As with leg and hip stretching, the key word is gently. 
    Once you're fully stretched, begin your forms, kicks, or punches easily.  For example, begin with low kicks at 50% of max power and speed.  Do 10 or 15 reps before switching legs.  Then go back to the other leg, this time kicking at perhaps 70% of max power and speed.  In my own training I rarely kick at 100% of max power and speed unless I'm an hour into my routine.  Listen, I'm not training for the Olympics; I'm training to stay fit and to enjoy the lifelong benefits of martial-arts training.
    Without a doubt, I spend a lot more time warming up and stretching than I did 20, 30, or 40 years ago.  But my goal is to avoid injuries that could knock me out of training for weeks or months.  Sustained, moderate training is better than short bursts of crazed training followed by months of rehab.
     You should be able to find lots of tips on "stretching for seniors" by searching the web.  If not, or if you want a custom-tailored program, I strongly recommend that you invest in a visit to a qualified physical therapist who is experienced in working with martial artists.  Let him or her build a comprehensive stretching program that sets you on the path to martial-arts training for a lifetime.
     Please feel free to share your own training tips.  And if you know of any senior-friendly competitions coming up in New Jersey, please share the information here so that we can help spread the word.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

How long does it take to get back in shape?

Okay, today's question assumes that you've abandoned your martial-arts training for some time -- perhaps decades -- and are now wondering what you're in for as you begin training at 50, 60, 70, or older.  And it's a fair question, because many of us have to leave training while we juggle the usual components of adulthood: holding a job, raising children, mowing the lawn, and all the rest.
   Let's begin by defining what you mean by "in shape."  If you wonder whether you'll be as capable at 65 as you were at 25, the answer is no.  I've never met a serious martial artist who has gained speed, flexibility, and stamina in his or her 60s or 70s after laying off for long period.  So in all likelihood your goal should be to maximize the potential of your body as it is currently configured.  Losing weight if necessary and beginning a reasonable strength-training program can help, but don't expect your flying side kicks to take you above the clouds.  A "high kick" at 25 is generally quite different from a "high kick" at 65 or 70. 
    But, hey, does this really matter?  Even when you were younger, did you really need to put a side kick on the chin of a seven-footer?  No.  It was smarter to aim for the midsection -- a larger and less mobile target.  So if at your current age your side kick doesn't go higher than someone's midsection, what the big deal?  And note that we're talking for the moment only about the practical matter of self defense.  If your goal in resuming your martial-arts training is simply to get healthier, the height of your kicks doesn't really matter.  Again, your goal is to maximize your current potential.  Do as much as you can with what you've got.
   So let's answer the question: how long will it take to get into the best possible shape at your current age?  Answer: months, not weeks.  After, say, three or four months you should be able to ease your body back into  those old martial-arts moves as long as you don't rush the process.  Rushing the process will lead to injuries, and injuries could persuade you to quit for good.  If you're taking up your martial art after years of "vacation," you should speak with your physician.  He or she may decide that your fitness program should incorporate some physical therapy treatment BEFORE you injure yourself.  Trust me, a trained physical therapist can be a tremendous ally in your comeback program.
   If you don't rush the process and give yourself a chance, you will likely find that you've made substantial progress after 4-6 months and are well on your way to "my best shape for age X."  That's not a long time for something worthwhile, especially when we're only talking about an investment of perhaps an hour a day -- most of it spent stretching and working on whatever forms/poomsae/katas you remember.  And if you don't remember any of them -- a strong possibility -- just search online for your martial-art style.  Chances are you'll find tutorial videos for every style and every form, whether beginner or advanced.
   If you're a Senior in the Martial Arts, please share your advice on how to either stay in shape or get back into shape once you've passed 50.  Your photos and videos are most welcome if they can help inspire other seniors to get back on the martial-arts path.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Training with less joint stress

Back in the late sixties and early seventies the gold standard for kick training was the 70 lb. or perhaps 100 lb. heavy bag that hung from the ceiling in the training hall.  The heavy bag certainly helped you develop powerful kicks, but it also involved a jarring "dead stop" that put significant stress on your joints -- from your ankles right on up through your hips and lower back.  This was fine when you were, say, 23, but if you're now in the ranks of Seniors in the Martial Arts you probably should take better care of those aging joints.  You'll have less pain and help avoid the cost of knee and hip replacements if you find a less jarring alternative to the heavy bag. 

What I have turned to is a relatively inexpensive free-standing bag that a) is softer than the traditional heavy bag [when you make contact, the striking surface feels more like an opponent's midsection than a concrete wall and b) flexes as you hit it, further reducing the stress on your joints.  In the photo sequence below I'm on my back deck practicing a crescent kick.  The kicking dummy offers sufficient resistance to let me know I'm generating some power, but it doesn't produce the dead stop that my aging hips really don't need.

I happen to be using Everlast's version of a free-standing bag, but there are numerous similar products on the market.  My bag cost about $130 at Dick's Sporting Goods.  If you shop online, you can probably find what you need at a reasonable price.  The reason the bag stays in place when you kick it is that the large black base is filled with water.  If I want to move the unit, I simply drain the water, move the relatively lightweight parts, and refill with water.  The manufacturer also says you can fill the base with sand, but then what?  How do you remove the sand when you want to move the whole unit?  Forget that idea.  Use water.

One major lesson I learned while using this device on my deck is that -- duh -- the deck is a really bad surface from which to be launching kicks, especially spinning kicks.  The surface is quite irregular because of all the individual boards, and this increases the likelihood of injury -- as when your pivot foot gets hung up on the half-inch difference between one board and another.  I think I need to invest in a high-quality mat.  With the mat and the new kicking dummy, I should be able to practice my kicks and build additional power without overwhelming the old bones and joints.  Listen, this is all about compromise.  If you want to stay active in the martial arts at 60, 70, or 80, you have to be willing to compromise on the training.  Do as much as you can for as long as you can.  If you push beyond your capabilities, you'll learn quickly that there is indeed a difference between 25 and 65.  Happy training!

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

If you're seeking some martial-arts inspiration today -- something to get you back into training or to keep you going as a 50+ practitioner -- check out this video of taekwondo Grand Master Kyu Hyung Lee demonstrating 8th Dan form Hansu.  Notice especially the gray hairs.  This Grand Master is one of us.
   Obviously this is a man who has devoted his life to taekwondo, and the rest of us mere mortals -- born with either less natural ability or less drive -- can't expect to sustain this level of proficiency when we're 60, 70, or 80.  But we don't need to.  The simple rule of thumb is "do whatever you can with whatever ability you've got."  Practicing your martial art will improve your attitude and your health, even if you have to work around arthritic hips and diminished stamina. 
   If you're just getting back to the martial arts after a long layoff, begin by seeing your family doctor.  Also consider working with a physical therapist to help get you stretching the right muscles and joints the right way.  It's quite possible that stretching techniques you learned, say, 30 years ago are no longer considered state of the art. 
   Okay, enough talk.  Let's watch Grand Master Kyu Hyung Lee in action.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The pollen count in NJ keeps climbing, as your yellow driveway indicates.  So I'm not sure how much longer I'll be doing my forms out on the back deck.  But I've found that training outdoors is helpful.  To begin with, you kick fewer tables and lamps than you do in the living room.  Best of all, you're out there enjoying the sights and sounds of nature, all of which help to keep you focused on the training at hand. 
   Here's a backyard YouTube video of Taebaek, the 3rd Dan form required by the Kukkiwon.  If you're 50 or older and want to share a photo or video, please send it in.  All comments and attachments are reviewed before posting, just to make sure we keep "Seniors in the Martial Arts" in touch with the intended audience.
   Have a great day.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Just for the heck of it I searched Google today for "seniors and martial arts."  So guess how many references I picked up in a quarter of a second.  Would you say 700, 7,000, 70,000, 700,000, or more?  If you said "more," you're right on the money.  7.6 million was the actual number. 
   No, I'll never try visiting all those pages, but here's the general theme of the articles I did check out: the martial arts can help seniors age more gracefully.  The health benefits include flexibility, balance, stamina, and muscle tone.  And unlike many fitness programs that seniors might consider, the martial arts have the added benefit of being, well, martial -- that is, they have a built-in warrior component that could very well come in handy if you're assaulted.  Although you're not likely to be assaulted, it's nice to know that you've been trained to react in some defensive manner should the unexpected happen.
   Beyond this -- and perhaps most important of all -- the martial arts represent a way of life.  The sense of well being that comes with the serious study of karate, taekwondo, kung fu, or any other martial art you care to name goes beyond the physical.  There's a strong mental component as well, and it means something slightly different to each of us.  Meditation, discipline, focus, and a sense of challenge are among some of the benefits that come to mind.  Call it what you will, it's about living a fuller and fitter lifestyle.
    My goal isn't to break cinder blocks with my forehead when I'm 80, although I would be suitably impressed by anyone who can do so and live.  I just want to live the martial-arts lifestyle and keep my mind and body tuned up.  You've probably read a great deal in recent years about the research that has been done on the mind/body connection.  But what scientific researchers are proving is something that martial artists have known for generations: a strong mind and a strong body together are better than either alone. 
    Whether you're a 75-year-old black belt or a 55-year-old white belt, you'll find something worth having in the martial arts.  Please take a moment to share your experiences with "Seniors in the Martial Arts."  If you're a New Jersey martial artist over the age of 50, this blog's for you.
     Stay well.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Today is launch day for "Seniors in the Martial Arts," a site for New Jersey martial artists who are 50 and older.  If you're a practicing "senior," you've noticed that some things don't get better with age: your stamina may not be what it was at, say, 25.  Your "high" kicks may not be as high as they once were.  And you may not choose to break as many boards and bricks as you once did.
   And yet you continue to train, and maybe you still compete.  The trick here is to choose your spots wisely.  Training with 20-year-olds may be exhilirating for a while, but eventually some of your aging body parts may rebel.  [For the record, my second home is the physical therapy clinic.]  And when it comes to tournaments, don't feel compelled to compete in the Open division unless you're truly a world-class specimen.  Hey, runners have been competing for decades in age-group events.  This makes perfect sense.  So why don't more martial-arts tournaments actively pursue older athletes?  It's great that kids 6 and over all have narrowly defined age groups for tournaments, but if you're 60, you may find yourself having to compete against folks who are 40.  And let's face it: 20 years can make a big difference in serious competition.
   So there you have a few comments to get the ball rolling.  Please share your thoughts on how to remain active in the martial arts when you're 50, 60, 70, or older.