Why fight to get fit? Self-defense programs that double as a workout are nothing new, but they’re gaining popularity, says John Graden, the founder and CEO of the Martial Arts Teacher’s Association and author of “Who Killed Walt Bone,” a book about a 1970s karate school. Thanks in part to the popularity of mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “interest in martial arts is at an all-time high,” he says. “Parents see it as the ideal supplement to their children’s education, especially with reduced recess and physical education; adults see it as fitness with the benefit of getting in shape.”
Merging martial arts and fitness not only teaches students to protect themselves while getting fit, but it also engages their minds in a way most standard fitness classes don’t. For example, many martial arts classes begin with an acted-out scenario – say, three men approaching you at an ATM – rather than a warmup or stretching session. Then students debrief with their instructor and learn how to protect themselves in such situations. Unlike some workouts that are difficult to get your mind into, Graden says, ”you’re immediately alive in that class.” Zeisler sees this mental shift among her students too. “Instead of focusing on how many reps [they] have left, they’re focused on the form and the survival aspect of it,” she says.
For Samantha Thomas, a 24-year-old forensic technician in Largo, Florida, self-defense offered a new challenge to her tired gym routine. After stumbling upon C.O.B.R.A. Fit – a 10-week course in kickboxing, strength-training and nutrition – about four years ago, she was hooked. “It’s not like any other workout program out there,” she says. In fact, she liked it so much that she moved on to C.O.B.R.A’s self-defense program, a 10-week course dubbed “a police academy for civilians” that draws on martial arts, law enforcement, close-quarters combat techniques and the psychology of criminal intent. Thomas still practices at least four times a week, and she earned her orange belt last month. For her, the best part of the program is its real-world applicability.
“Working with the police station, I see what happens to people who don’t have any training,” she says. While she hasn’t had to use her skills in the real world, she’s prepared if that changes. “That alone,” Thomas says, “is a comforting feeling.”
Finding the Best Program for You
Self-defense programs vary widely, but many have a common thread: to teach students to “neutralize an opponent using as little energy as possible,” says Tiffany Cunin, the YMCA regional director of group exercise in the District of Columbia. In other words, instead of learning to attack someone, students learn how to avoid an attack or protect themselves should one occur, she says. Most programs can also be considered exercise. After all, Cunin says, “an element of being fit is being able to defend yourself.”