Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Easing into the martial arts

If you're 50, 60, or perhaps 70 you have already figured out that your body behaves somewhat differently from the way it did when you were, oh, 25.  You may still feel 25 at certain times, but reality comes creeping in now and then -- especially if you decide to take up some new physical activity.  So there's a right way and a wrong way to begin a new training program if you're a "mature" 66, as I am.
     Let's begin with the wrong way.  I love taekwondo and have studied this Korean martial art for over 40 years.  But if I hadn't trained for, let's say, five years, I would be a fool to walk into a school and attempt to pick up where I had left off.  That's a prescription for multiple potential disasters: lower back, hamstrings, hip joints, shoulders, and just about every body part you can name.  Yes, you could lay off and bounce back quickly when you were 25.  But you're no longer 25.
     So let's consider the right way.  First, see your primary care doctor and let him or her assess your body's preparedness for serious training.  If you've been working out regularly at the gym, you're probably ready for a martial-arts program.  But check with the doctor anyway. 
     Now here's an important consideration.  If the doctor says it's okay for you to begin the martial-arts program, ask for a referral to a local physical therapy clinic.  Why wait until you've damaged something before seeing a physical therapist?  Isn't it smarter to have a qualified professional assess your strength, flexibility, and stamina?  That's what physical therapists do on a daily basis.  Your primary doctor does not.  He or she knows all about your blood pressure, heart rate, medications, and such, but your doctor is not generally well equipped to assess the "active ingredients" of a training program that calls for strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance.
     For those of us who were born "flex challenged," the first thing a physical therapist can do for you is gently prepare you for kicking.  A "high kick" is one thing when you're 25 and something else when you're 65 -- at least at the beginning.  Can you achieve greater flexibility when you're a senior?  Absolutely.  But if you don't ease into the stretching program under the watchful eye of a professional, you stand a great chance of injuring yourself.  And this could result in a long recovery or a decision to quit training.  Avoid both: see the professional first.
     A physical therapist can also provide you with written directions -- complete with photos -- on how to do your stretching or strengthening exercises properly.  Working hard but wrong is a common problem and the cause of many unnecessary injuries.
     So you've seen your doctor, and you've had perhaps 10 sessions with a physical therapist.  What now?  Visit some martial-arts schools in your area to see which ones seem to care most about helping seniors achieve their fitness and self-defense goals.  I'm partial to taekwondo, because it relies heavily on kicks rather than upper-body strength.  This is an important consideration for seniors.  You don't want to be grappling with a 20-year-old mugger when you could be remodeling his groin with a well-directed front snap kick instead. 
     If you've "retired" from the martial arts, "unretire."  Get back with the program.  And if you haven't trained before, there's no time like the present.  It's not too late.