To get better balance, power and agility, kickboxing is king among workouts. Experts who have studied the sport say nearly everyone—even older people who might shy away from such things—can benefit from throwing a punch.
Unlike most other types of exercise, kickboxing emphasizes powerful movements. Power is different from strength, and for older adults, it's an even better predictor of mobility and their risk for falls, says Kurt Jackson, an associate professor of neurology and rehab science at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “Pure strength is what a weightlifter uses, but producing power is about both force and speed,” he says.
Kickboxing training tends to involve shorts bouts, two to three minutes long, of intense, repetitive movement—like hitting a punching bag over and over again and kicking and kneeing a pad someone else is holding. “If you look at the research on high-intensity interval training [HIIT], you see these short, intense periods of activity can have big benefits,” he says. Some research shows that even very brief stretches—just 60 seconds—of HIIT can offer the same gains in heart and lung health as 45 minutes of less-intense exercise.
Kickboxing has been shown to improve fitness, power, flexibility and agility, according to a study of healthy men in their twenties who trained three days a week for five weeks. The men in the study improved their upper and lower body power by about 7%, while shaving off more than a second from their time in a 50-meter dash.
It also torches a lot of calories. One study from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that the kind of punching-and-kicking combinations used in Tae Bo or “cardio kickboxing” classes burn more than eight calories per minute—about the same amount you'd burn while swimming.
The sport can also improve coordination, even in the most extreme cases. Jackson studies the neuromuscular benefits of kickboxing training for people with multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition in which poor communication between the brain and muscles can lead to falls or problems with activities that rely on multitasking, like walking and talking. Kickboxing helps strengthen neuromuscular control in people with the disease in ways that improve balance, mobility and dual-tasking activities, he found.
The benefits likely apply to older adults as well. Kickboxing improves both types of balance that the body requires—anticipatory and reactive—and better balance reduces risk of falls or muscle weakness. “Anticipatory balance is something you use when you can see a need coming, like when you’re stabilizing yourself to reach up into a cupboard,” Jackson says. Reactive balance is the type of mind-muscle coordination you need to catch your balance when you trip, or when life throws some unexpected object your way.
Those skills are useful before you hit old age. If your workout routine relies on lifting weights, running or yoga, your neuromuscular system may not be tuned to handle the kind of dynamic motion required for sports—even the ones you do just a few times a year, like skiing or pickup basketball. “You see these people step or twist wrong and suffer major tears,” Jackson says. “Kickboxing training is a great way to avoid those types of injuries.”
However, the swift whole-body movements required in kickboxing could also cause injuries. Back, knee, hip and shoulder strains are all common among kickboxers, found a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
As with most other forms of vigorous exercise, if you’re a newbie, it’s important to ease into kickboxing gradually. “If you have a bad knee or some other limitation, it’s important to have a coach or physical therapist who knows how to adapt a kickboxing program to your needs, and who will introduce it in a controlled, systematic manner,” Jackson says. Start slow, and you'll get the most benefits in the end.