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Martial Arts Made Friendly

Martial arts - at my age?! Maybe you can't picture yourself kickboxing your way to fitness or mimicking moves you've seen in old Bruce Lee films, but the vast world of martial arts disciplines has something to offer just about everyone.

A martial art is an Oriental art of combat or self-defense practiced with or without weapons. People who study martial arts in the U.S. today do so mostly for sport, self-defense, and exercise, as well as to develop concentration, self-confidence, and self-discipline. Some of the more popular martial arts in the U.S. include karate, judo, Tae Kwon Do, and Tai Chi.

Going With The Flow

With its precise, gentle, flowing movements, you might find the ancient Chinese mind-body practice of Tai Chi especially appealing if you're 50 or older or have a chronic condition, like arthritis, high blood pressure, or back problems. The focus on slow movement, breathing, and concentration is aimed at moving your life energy, or Ch'i, throughout your body. The relaxing nature of this art is perfect for relieving stress.

The nice thing about Tai Chi is that you don't have to be in good health or shape to begin, according to Warren Connor, a 30-year student of Tai Chi who teaches classes in the Washington, DC area. Nor is age a factor. While the majority of his students are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, Connor says he also has beginning students in their 80s.

Tai Chi also can improve balance, posture, flexibility, coordination, and strength. Studies have shown that older people who practice Tai Chi reduce their risk of falls.

Once you learn the physical movements, which are done in the same order each time, "your legs will definitely get stronger, your breathing will deepen, your balance will improve," says Connor. "It [Tai Chi] also will help you move more efficiently."

Connor's student, Al Sommers, discovered Tai Chi when he and his wife, Nina, both 64, were searching for something they could do into their "golden" years. "The idea that you can continue to do this throughout your life is what makes it appealing to us," says Sommers, an AARP employee who had studied the more vigorous martial art forms of Goju Ryu karate and Isshinryu karate while in the Marine Corps, as well as aikido.

Plus, it's fun. "Tai chi almost becomes like a meditation in motion," says Sommers, who looks forward to and enjoys the "internal focus" of the discipline.

And Tai Chi is completely portable and flexible. You can practice at home, in a class, in a park or hotel room, alone or with a partner. You don't need much space or time, equipment, or special clothing.

Kicking It Up A Notch

If you're looking for a more physically intense martial arts experience, you have lots of options. Karate, kung fu, kendo, Tae Kwon Do, hapkido, judo, and jujitsu are among the better known martial arts that involve varying degrees of kicking, punching, grappling, throwing, and self-defense techniques.

All martial arts, regardless of style, can help develop strength, balance, and flexibility, and improve concentration and confidence.

"Martial arts are the best for helping older people develop and maintain strength and balance," says Grand Master Jhoon Rhee, who is credited with introducing the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do to America in the 1950s.

And Rhee, who at age 71 does 1,000 pushups a day, says it's not the age of your body but your commitment to taking care of it - especially through exercise - that matters most. "A 70-year-old Congressman who just got his third-degree black belt punches like a 20-year-old," attests Rhee, who has been teaching Tae Kwon Do to members of Congress for years.

Because the martial arts are progressive, you won't start out kicking to your head and breaking boards with your hands, regardless of how old you are. With time and practice, you'll reach higher and higher levels of expertise at your own pace.

Choosing The Martial Art For You

Studying a martial art can challenge you both mentally and physically, teach you about different cultures and philosophies, and provide a new outlet for physical activity that can last for years, depending on how much you want to learn and how far you want to advance.

Research different martial arts before you choose one to study. Ask yourself what's most important to you. Do you want to develop an art? Compete in tournaments for sport? Focus on defending yourself? Have a spiritual experience? Give yourself an intense physical workout? Improve your ability to center yourself, focus your mind, and relax?

Find out if the martial art you're interested in is taught in your area. You can ask around or check the yellow pages under "martial arts" or martial arts type, such as "judo." Depending on where you live, you might have limited choices.

Not all classes are taught at martial arts schools. Community recreation centers, YMCAs, and wellness centers also might offer martial arts classes, so you should check there too. Going to a particular martial arts school, or paying more money for a class, doesn't mean the class will be better. Focus on the training and experience of the instructors and the classes themselves.

Visit and watch several classes and talk to students and teachers afterward. Ask if you can take free trial classes. Pay attention to the teacher's style and whether it suits you. For instance, do you like more serious and disciplined instructors with a bootcamp approach, or those with a sense of humor? Do you like more formal or informal classes?

Listen for how well instructors explain what's going on, whether they are watching and helping students perform movements, and whether they take time to warm up and cool down before and after the workout. Do the teachers display knowledge and expertise during class?

After class, ask the teachers what kind of training they have, where and with whom they studied, and how many years of teaching experience they have. Find out if the school follows any particular philosophy. Ask students how long they've been taking classes there and what they've learned.

Finally, read through any contract thoroughly before signing on with a program or school. Some schools require an up-front deposit and minimum time commitment. Find out if there are exceptions for extended travel, illness, or moving, or costs beyond those mentioned in the contract. Good luck and have fun!

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