September 2, 2006

Martial Arts: Fitness for the Body and the Mind

BY David Bohn ("Fitness")

Finally a fun, fun, fun summer has come to an end here in the Windy City. Between Pride, the Fourth of July, the Games and Market Days among others, it’s been an exhausting summer! That can be both good and bad as all of the festivities this year probably made it a little challenging to stay dedicated to your workout program. If you competed, congratulations on that and your training, if not, hopefully you still enjoyed the weather outside by playing volleyball, rollerblading, jogging or any other activity that gets the body moving and burns calories.

As fall approaches, you may be looking to reinvigorate your workout program or to change it up completely. While everyone can lift weights and do cardio on a treadmill, perhaps it’s time to try something different. Martial arts is one such activity that people can engage in that not only strengthens the body, it improves flexibility and coordination as well as addressing such issues as self-confidence and concentration.

How does martial arts improve so many aspects of a person’s life? As a new student, students work primarily with basic drills, such as blocks, punches and kicks to work on one’s hand-eye coordination and timing. Usually people new to martial arts are not in the best of shape, so a lot of martial arts is physical conditioning; push-ups, sit-ups, floor drills (kicks) and working with a heavy bag and jumping rope (though not necessarily all at the same time!)

It is at this time of conditioning and stamina-building that students continually work to improve their technique in martial arts. Repetitive punches in what is called a "horse stance" or a wide middle stance does several things. The punches work on hand-eye coordination (punching at a specific target) and also work the shoulders, chest and triceps. Maintaining the wide stance works the quads, glutes and hamstrings. Students also learn proper breathing techniques to be able to channel more power through their technique as well as to execute the famous "khi-ap!" This shouting while punching or kicking is again to channel one’s breathing and power into the technique. In the event someone really needs to use what he or she has learned in class for self-defense, a show of force is usually enough to dissuade an attacker or give him pause long enough to run out of the situation and get help.

As the student progresses in belt-rank, he or she learns to execute ever more complex strikes and blocks; incorporating single-arm and -leg techniques (requiring more balance). Students also begin learning how to spar (combat fight), work with weapons such as the Jahng Bong (mid-range staff) and the Ssahng Jeol Bong (nun chucks) and to learn various self-defense techniques. This is not to say all of these aspects in martial arts are going to be learned in eight weeks, whereupon one will be able to inflict the Touch of Death; true martial arts training takes years, but the benefits are long lasting.

In addition to all of the physical benefits of martial arts training, students receive numerous additional benefits for the mind. With continued practice, members learn improved concentration, discipline and focus. Martial arts also teaches the values of leadership, teamwork and integrity; virtues a little short-changed in our society. If people are looking for a connection with something in the universe larger than themselves, martial arts can help foster such a non-threatening connection; whether or not church is a significant part of one’s life.

If you have an even more competitive side to working out, martial arts features large tournaments across the region and country where you can compete with people in your same age group and rank, testing your skills and abilities in tournament settings. These tournaments are completely voluntary for those who seek to test their training outside of a school setting.

Martial arts is also excellent training for children. Martial arts can help improve the development of the above qualities while teaching additional values of self-confidence, respect (for elders and parents), discipline (for doing homework and chores) and improving sociability. Martial arts schools such as the ATA Blackbelt Academy also feature family classes where parents and children can train together; it’s a great bonding time for families who are trying find active ways to spend time together.

In summary, martial arts can improve one’s physical stamina, strength, endurance, balance and coordination, as well as one’s focus, mental discipline and self-confidence. It can be a great supplement to one’s workout, or a complete workout in and of itself. If you workout and have children, martial arts is a great way to instill the value of physical health and activity at a young age, as well as instilling values of integrity, discipline and honesty. With the changing seasons and the need to come back inside, why not mix up the workout and try something new? The challenge just might surprise you.

Editor's Note: Fitness Editor David Bohn has been practicing American Taekwondo for over five years and is a double medal-winner in the ’06 Gay Games in martial arts. He is a second degree black belt who co-owns and teaches at the Chicago ATA Blackbelt Academy, 3103 N. Ashland. New fall classes for adults and children begin September 5th. The phone number for the Academy is 773/755-4065, please call for more information!