The Simi Valley Senior Center looks just as you’d expect. You’ll find baby boomers and the greatest generation making their way to their weekly bunco games and knitting clubs. You’ll find those charming retirees gathered in easy chairs, chatting over cups of coffee and sharing pictures of their grandkids. What you’ll also find is the weekly boxing class. Yes, boxing. For seniors.
It took some time and discussions with the powers that be to agree to Nikki Lian’s proposal of a seniors kickboxing class. Initially, Lian, owner of CKO Kickboxing in Simi Valley, CA, was met by many flabbergasted faces at the suggestion of such an off-beat type of activity. After all, this was boxing and these are seniors here. Can the two really mix? According to Lian, whose member roster at CKO includes many seniors, the two mix quite well.
“Two and a half years ago [the senior center administration] didn’t see boxing as something that seniors can do. Meanwhile seniors have to keep moving…their life depends on it.”
In fact, boxing, if you think about it, really is just what the doctor ordered.
We are born, knowing nothing but our innate needs to eat, sleep, connect and communicate. From there, we grow stronger. Mentally, physically, socially and emotionally. But there comes a point, decades in, where, tough as it may be, we seem to go in reverse a bit.
The marathons we ran in our 20’s…well, let’s just say we’ve since retired. Those annual ski trips we took are replaced with a walk around the block and a rest on that garden bench halfway through.
We face these realizations that we are slowing down. “Changing” may be a more tolerable word.
That doesn’t mean we stop altogether, but rather we must find alternatives. New ways of using our body, yes, without overlooking new ways in which to use our brain as well. This is all in an attempt to halt or reverse the aging process, with the overarching goal of living a longer healthier life.
And that’s just it. That is the key. Ongoing movement and challenges to our body and our brain alike is what keeps us going. It makes all the difference.
“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”– Betty Friedan
To offset the cognitive decline that can come with aging, you have to practice healthy habits, like eating right and exercising, but you also have to actually use your brain. (Remember the Scarecrow? If he only had a brain, he would have used it!) Harvard Health Publishing notes the importance of continual learning and using all of your senses to keep your mind sharp.
Taking up boxing provides an opportunity to not only move but learn a new skill in a multi-sensory way. You may think boxing can be equally exchanged for taking up running instead. However, the difference is that you can lace up your sneakers and go for a run, without even thinking. But cardio kickboxing is different. Specifically at CKO, it requires an active concentrative mind throughout the workout.
For starters, developing an understanding of the various strikes and movements that the class requires is your brain in action. As instructors call out combinations, you are forced to be present, to think, to focus, to use multiple senses – listening, feeling, and sight in order to move, connect and balance.
On a moment’s notice your mind must recall, reevaluate and react. It’s a brain training game in physical form that anyone at any age can benefit from.
From the brain we move to the heart. (Cue the Tin Man!)
Heart disease maintains the number one cause of death in this country, and therefore, heart health is of the utmost importance. Those 65 and older are at an even greater risk of heart disease, and thus need to keep their heart strong.
Aging causes changes in the heart, such as “the buildup of fatty deposits in the walls of arteries over many years” as well as “increased stiffness of the large arteries” which leads to high blood pressure (National Institute On Aging). So what’s to be done? Work. That. Heart.
Cardiovascular activities, like CKO Kickboxing, succeed in getting your heart pumping, while allowing you to go at a pace that’s comfortable, yet challenging, to any and every participant.
Those who regularly exercise have a younger, stronger heart. It was recently proven at Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory with a study on lifelong exercisers, the first study of its kind. The study’s subjects, septuagenarians (people between the ages of 70-79) were the early adopters of exercise during the exercise boom in the 1970’s and have incorporated cardiovascular exercise into their everyday lives (4-6 days a week) for 50 years. The study concluded that these lifelong exercisers at 75 years of age have the cardiovascular health of someone 30-35 years younger. Not too shabby!
Working your heart muscle through exercise keeps your heart not only ticking, but strong. It’s great and all to be young at heart, but if your heart isn’t healthy, does it even matter?
They say we get wiser with age, but we also get lonelier, as age brings with it much loss. Loss of jobs due to retirement, loss of kids who move away, loss of friends and family who pass away. Our connections to one another can diminish, which brings us back to those innate human needs. In this case, the need to connect which is why places like senior centers are so crucial.
Feeling connected to something, someone or some group is a basic human need. Without it, many people, seniors especially, experience social isolation. It isn’t asked for or desired but sometimes, circumstantially it happens. And it’s deadly.
The National Institute on Aging reports that “Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”
These health risks are reason enough to take part in a group experience, in this case group exercise. Taking on a physical challenge, with others by your side, fighting the same fight you are, in their own way, with instructors cheering you on; that creates connections.
There’s so much to be gained here beyond a health body, mind, and heart. Relationships, friendships even, blossom here. To be part of something, to see familiar and friendly faces and to share in an experience fends off social isolation and it’s negative and sometimes fatal side effects.
That’s what happens at CKO and why one of every seven CKO members, those 50 years and older, see and feel the value of CKO.
CKO is more than a gym. To Lian, “it’s a family…that’s the first word that comes to mind.”
It’s not surprising if you feel much like the cowardly lion walking into a new gym for the first time. It can be quite intimidating. To anyone, no matter your age.
The apprehension surrounding physical activity for some older Americans may not be due to intimidation but to their fear of falling. One in four Americans, 65 years and older, experience a fall each year. Avoiding exercise, however, is exactly what you should not do if you want to reduce your chance of falling.
“I had a senior in my class that told me she fell at home but fell into a plank position…she was so grateful and said, “If I didn’t take this class, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” Lian recalls.
Physical activity strengthens your muscles so you are better able to hold yourself upright. The CKO Kickboxing workout takes it even further, by incorporating core strengthening exercises and full-body movements that increase your balance and functional fitness abilities, decreasing your risk of a fall.
Cardio kickboxing gives seniors the strength and confidence they need. The intimidation factor may still be there but what you have going for you happens to be your age. This is not your first rodeo. By simply living life, you’ve experienced challenges before. You’ve been the newbie. You’ve taken on something new. And in doing so, you’ve accomplished one thing or another, time and time again.
This stage of life, according to Lian, “it’s about socializing, moving…feeling good.” She continues, “Seniors need to know that they have to keep moving. Movement makes miracles”
To see the miracle, to reap the benefits, to get that healthy brain and heart and home all wrapped in one, it takes a little dose of courage.
No matter your age, senior or youngster, it doesn’t matter. We all need those four chambers in life to keep us centered, to keep us healthy, to keep us here. A strong heart. A solid brain. Courage to face what lies before us. And a place like home.
Kimberly Oley is a self-employed content writer and strategist who began as Contributing CKO Author in 2018.