Kickboxing Is the Fun, Full-Body Workout You Never Knew You’d Love

Aside from being a great physical workout, kickboxing and sparring can also boost your mental health and provide a space for some much-needed socializing.

Throwing a punch at a friend might not be seem like a great way to bond, but for the boxers at SHEspars, it’s totally normal—and encouraged.

Kickboxing can be an empowering way to develop self-defence skills, and a good way to build trust and make new friends, says Damali Fraiser. She’s the executive director of SHEspars, a group that organizes muay Thai sparring events around southern Ontario, based on the idea that women and non-binary folks deserve a space and the time to practice the sport safely. “There’s no politics or gym drama. It’s like meeting a friend that you feel like you’ve known for a long time,” she says.

Muay Thai is a form of kickboxing, which is like boxing except that it also incorporates arms and legs (unlike regular boxing, which is upper body only). The rise of cardio-style kickboxing classes (you know, the ones that have you shadowboxing while you hop from foot to foot, leaving you breathless and sweaty) have turned what was originally a martial art into a popular form of aerobic exercise. But kickboxing can do so much more than just boost your cardio: A study published in 2014 in the journal Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons found that kickboxing also improves speed, agility, flexibility, upper body strength and aerobic power, making it a great high-intensity, full-body workout.

“A lot of different aspects of your physiology are involved,” says Hyedie Hashimoto, a PC kru (which means teacher) at Lotus Fitness Muay Thai in Toronto.

Fraiser says that the main complaint she hears from her fellow female boxers is that there’s often a lack of other women at mainstream gyms or sparring events. SHEspars draws in women from a wide range of backgrounds and ages—Fraiser, who is turning 43 this year, notes that girls as young as seven come to spar and exercise with women in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

SHEspars also enables women who are past their competitive days to continue practicing. Jennifer Boffo, the founder of SHEspars, was a muay Thai fighter for years before an injury forced her to stop.

There’s no age limit on who can do muay Thai, confirms Hashimoto. She explains that “motion is lotion, so no matter your age, if you can start moving and stay active, it will probably prevent you from getting stiff and immobile.”

Img20221101 0033Image: Brianna Roye

As a petite woman, Hashimoto was told that she couldn’t spar because everyone else was much bigger than her. “My first coach told me that my short stature was ‘ruining’ the sparring techniques of the taller guys,” she recalls. “But I’ve made lifelong friends and really strong bonds within the muay Thai community with the women at SHEspars.”

SHEspars events are not competitions, explains Fraiser. (There are no scores kept during sparring and no one wins or loses—it’s just about practicing the moves.) Their events are about finding community within a safe space, so they always start with friendly introductions. “It’s not a real fight, but it’s still a vulnerable place to be in, and you want to know that the people you’re putting yourself into that position with actually care about you,” she says.

Fraiser sees it as a sports and gender equity issue—allowing women athletes to escape what can be a toxic gym culture, and to feel both empowered and supported. “We’re trying to give folks in different areas the opportunity to bring all their women together to spar and get to know each other,” she says.

Img20221101 0034Image: Brianna Roye

What are the health benefits of kickboxing?

Core strengthening

Throwing punches and kicks strengthens your core muscles. When you twist for a punch to add power to it, you’re engaging your core.

Improved flexibility

Many of the movements associated with muay Thai are “like dynamic stretches,” says Hashimoto. “The more you do them, the more flexible you become.”

Cardio workout

All of that moving around while you’re sparring gets your heart rate up and pumping.

Confidence boost

Sparring allows boxers to finally apply the training and skills they learned from practising on pads and pillows. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. “Being able to even get one shot on your opponent is a huge confidence boost,” Hashimoto says.

Mental clarity

Sparring can sometimes lead to a meditative state, says Hashimoto. Some seasoned pros focus so intently on the fight that their minds are totally empty during the spar. The undivided attention on one sustained activity—it’s not unlike running a marathon—can help people clear their mind and find relief from daily stressors.  

Next: The Life-Boosting Powers of Cold Water Swimming

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada