When you think of boxing, you may picture greats like Rocky Marciano duking it out with Jersey Joe Walcott. But boxing isn’t just a sport anymore. It’s also a popular way to stay fit among older adults, through a version known as fitness boxing. There’s no getting into a ring or taking any punches, so there’s no risk of head trauma. Instead, fitness boxing has adapted the movements of the sport into exercise routines. “This kind of boxing has many health benefits, because it constantly requires you to think, change your position, and change your posture,” says physical therapist Linda Arslanian, director of rehabilitation services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s hospital.
Unlike traditional boxing that requires you to spar with a partner, fitness boxing for older adults involves throwing punches at the air or at a punching bag, usually in a class. There are two main types of these exercise classes. In one, you follow a leader and do a series of boxing moves all choreographed to bouncy music, similar to an aerobics class. The moves include a combination of large, sweeping punches (crosses, hooks, uppercuts); smaller punches (jabs); squats (ducks); and short, quick steps forward and back. The other type of exercise class involves strength training, stretching, and hitting a punching bag. Don’t have the strength to stand and do boxing moves? Both types of classes are available for people who wish to remain seated while punching at the air or at a punching bag.
There’s no proof that fitness boxing is superior to any other types of exercise, but it does have many health benefits. One is strength. “You’re swinging your arms, moving the muscles of your arms and shoulders, increasing your upper-body strength. And when you’re in the boxer crouch with a wide stance, with your knees slightly bent, you’re strengthening your core muscles, back, and legs,” says Arslanian. Stronger muscles make it easier to get up out of a chair or carry a bag of groceries.
Fitness boxing is also a great aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise gets your heart pumping and helps lower the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It can strengthen bones and muscles, burn more calories, and lift mood. Aerobics can also boost your endurance, which helps you climb a flight of stairs or walk farther.
Plus, aerobic exercise is associated with improvement in certain brain functions. Arslanian says boxing in particular is well known for improving eye-hand coordination, especially if you’re sparring on a bag, hitting padded targets, or just “shadow” boxing. “There are studies that show trying to hit a target with your hands improves eye-hand coordination and possibly makes you feel more alert and attentive,” she explains. Better eye-hand coordination may also translate into an easier time picking up a pill or a pen.
And one last benefit of fitness boxing, if you are able to stand while doing it: better balance. “You’re changing your position and challenging your balance. The more you do that, the better your balance reaction becomes,” says Arslanian. “If you encounter a crack in the sidewalk, you may be more successful protecting yourself, because your strength and reaction time may have improved.”
What you should do
Fitness boxing is not for everyone. “I’d say you’d have to be very careful if you have osteoporosis or osteoarthritis of the hands. In that case, you should consider shadow boxing only, and make sure your hands don’t make contact with a tar-get,” says Arslanian. Also, with any activity that is potentially aerobic, you should check with your physician before starting.
If you’re interested in trying this exercise to change up your routine, you’ll likely find classes at health clubs, community centers, or your local YMCA. And if you do start a class, remember to take it slowly.
“You’ll want to start at a comfortable level of intensity and gradually increase, and stick with it,” says Arslanian, “It’s not about high intensity. It’s about consistency.”