I'll preface this by saying that I might change my mind tomorrow or in a few weeks, but for now, I'm sticking by this statement, and I'll explain why.
About a year and a half ago, I took the plunge and signed up for a 3-month trial of Taekwondo. My son has been involved in the sport for a few years, and I dabbled in it when I was a teenager, really only stopping because I totaled my Mazda RX7 in front of the studio and thus lost my transportations. It was a shame too because it was a perfect class for me. I was a lone 16-year-old in a sea of elementary kids, and the instructors were the owners' 20-year-old sons. They were hot and I was "forced" to spar with them, so you get my drift. I was devastated, but now I have a second chance.
Only this time it's not for the hot guys in the class.
Rather I'm finding it's for the job of moving, the mental challenge of the sport, and the community of women that's forming. I usually go to the adult class on Tuesday and Friday mornings. The core members of the class are four of us - me (46), Amy and Angela in their mid-30s, and Julie who is in her 50s. We all started the classes about the same time and have been moving up in belt levels together. There's something really nice about not being on your own - especially when it comes to testing and you're testing with a lot of 6 and 7-year-olds, and your son outranks you. But I digress.
Why is this the perfect midlife sport?
As we hit our mid-30s and start entering perimenopause, what our exercise program looks like changes a bit. No longer are the hours logged on the elliptical going to cut it when it comes to our wellness needs.
We need a program that addresses strength, mobility, balance and is mentally challenging. These components really help to keep our body stimulated when physiologically it's in break down mode. During today's class, I realized that I had all of these components in my 45-minute class.
Do this for me. Run backward and punch.
A little challenging but doable.
Now run backward while doing this in a circle where you have to make turns and avoid running into walls or other people.
A little harder.
Finally, do it while performing different actions with your arms - in this case, it was a low block on one arm and a punch with the other, alternating while you run. Yep, it's like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach while running backward and avoiding random obstacles.
There's your mental challenge.
Add to that the forms. Taekwondo has several forms you have to learn on your way to becoming a black belt. The school I train under follows the WTF principles, and so I have to learn 10 forms before testing for a black belt, among other skills. At my school, it isn't simply to learn, graduate, and move on, but rather we add a new form to what we've previously learned. We are often asked to just perform a previous form at random, which is tough because we’re all desperately just trying to learn what the new form includes. Right now I am a blue belt and have learned seven forms, and today the unthinkable happened. We were reviewing previous forms and my mind went blank. Now, I rock on forms. I rarely forget or make mistakes, but today it was just gone. Totally scary for the daughter of an early-onset Alzheimer's mom. Now I retrieved it fairly quickly, but it took some work. So yeah - a bit of mental stimulation in that area.
And then there is balance.
Taekwondo literally translates to "the art of kicking and punching". Given that, we have a lot of kicks that we learn in our training. I've graduated into the intermediate level of the sport, and so we're moving onto a more complex series of kicks and a lot of spinning. Now, the basic kicks can be challenging because it's just not kicking fast, but rather kicking with grace and skill. We often practice slow and controlled kicking which buzzes those hips and foot muscles and gets the balance signals going. There have been falls. A lot of hopping around. But then there is the spinning. Julie and I have the most issues with this because of inner ear fluid, but let me tell you - there is a rush that comes from doing a bad-ass kick.
Recently I learned how to do a flying sidekick. I am literally launching my ass through the air with a leg extended to break a board. That is a rush and your balance better be in check when you land that thing. Well, my balance is tested on most of the kicks. We’re barefoot, which is a bonus for balance as we get that extra foot stimulation that engages our hips to help us improve balance.
Along with the balance, the kicks also help me work on my mobility.
I have super tight hamstrings. I always have. When I throw a front kick quickly, with acceleration and power behind it, I can really get it up there. However, when we’re asked to slow down and work on our form, I struggle. My hamstring flexibility and hip mobility are lacking, and without the momentum to help, I can barely get that sucker to hip height. This is huge! As we get older we lose our mobility, and that can lead to issues with balance and just being able to enjoy the activities that inspire us. Taekwondo is asking me to tap into my knowledge of movement and apply it to myself. It’s tough, but it’s helpful. I can see what’s going to be expected of me in the form of mobility as I move towards the Black Belt, and it motivates me to get my mobility and flexibility work in. If nothing else, looking at my friends all resting their elbows on the ground while I struggle to look like I’m even bent over in a straddle stretch is fuel for that fire.
That leaves the strength element that is essential to staying active in midlife.
There’s not a lot of weightlifting associated with the sport of Taekwondo, and so I do try to add some additional training sessions outside of my lessons. That being said, we do incorporate bodyweight exercises into our training, and those leave me grunting. Pushups, punches, bag work, and sparring are all great examples of how strength training is incorporated into our classes. During our Friday classes, we often will bust out some dumbbells and work in a little strength HIIT either at the beginning or end of the main training. The owner’s wife Dana, who is a black belt in her 50s, often takes over these sessions and brings that element to just add to our experience. I love it!
I think the final element of midlife wellness that Taekwondo brings me is the community.
I don’t know about you, but this is an area in my life where I struggle. I don’t make friends easily and am fairly introverted and just joining a conversation isn’t in my nature. But, I have a community in these women. Not only the few I mentioned at the beginning but also Lisa, Brianna, Theresa and Eileen, who are Black Belts, that come to the classes once in a while. We’ve maintained our little group even during this COVID time with online classes and GNOs. We chat online. We all came together to participate in a graduation parade for Lisa's daughter. We check on one another. Julie made us masks. My daughter is taking piano lessons from Brianna.
It’s comforting to be a part of a group of women who are just having fun trying something new, and supporting each other as we rise through the ranks. All of our Black Belt friends are encouraging us to keep going as they want to build the female numbers at the school.
When I tell other women that I’m going to Taekwondo, they look at me funny and assume I’m taking my kids. When I explain that I’m going to class, they just don’t know what to think and usually give excuses for why they aren’t taking classes at their kids’ martial arts studio. That’s OK. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a great fit for me.
How about you? What is your vote for the “Perfect Midlife Sport”? I’d love to hear about it - maybe I’ll give it a go.
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