‘Once I started kicking, I didn’t want to stop!’ says Karleen Rhodes, 37. Eleven years ago, the Calgary special education assistant signed up her two sons, then six and seven, for tae kwon do lessons. When she saw how much they enjoyed it, she decided to try it out herself.
That decision came at the right time for Rhodes, who had struggled with depression for years as a financially strapped young single mom. ‘Once I started tae kwon do, I gained confidence, and the exercise made me feel good,’ she explains. ‘I slept better, my headaches went away and I stopped reaching for junk food all the time.’
The positive effects on mental health of martial arts such as tae kwon do’which roughly translates to ‘the way of the hand and the foot’ in Korean’have been shown in several studies. In one U.S. study, participants who did tae kwon do reported improvement in tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and vigour compared with a control group who did not take tae kwon do. As well, the Canadian Mental Health Association lists martial arts among the recommended stress management techniques in its guide to depression treatments.
But perhaps the biggest difference for Rhodes was finding a welcoming social circle. ‘I was meeting a whole bunch of new people and we all had tae kwon do in common,’ she says. ‘I found a community.’ Outside of class, she and her fellow martial artists go to the movies, have a drink and celebrate birthdays together. Martial arts are often perceived as a male-dominated activity, or just for children, but more and more women, including Rhodes and her friend Melodie Loberg, are starting to join classes, often with their kids or partners.
In addition to busting stress, honing concentration and boosting self-esteem, tae kwon do has lots of physical benefits. Because it’s a sport that focuses mainly on kicking, it strengthens the legs and core, and the arms get a workout, too, with punches and blocks (see ‘What You Need to Know,’ below). Flexibility, balance, endurance and range of motion improve, as well. And an hour of doing tae kwon do can burn 730 calories for a 160-lb. person.
Rhodes heads to her local tae kwon do club about twice a week for an hour-long class, although she trained much more intensively when she was working to earn her black belt. ‘People are surprised when they find out I’m a martial artist’I’m only five foot two!’but they are also impressed,’ says Rhodes. ‘It’s a big accomplishment, and it’s made a huge difference in my life, mentally, physically and socially.’
What you need to know
What is it? You’ll learn a series of basic moves’kicks, punches and blocks, using your arms and legs, and then build on the patterns you’ve learned. You don’t actually hit anyone; only advanced practitioners make contact with an opponent, after learning proper sparring techniques and while wearing protective gear.
What do I wear? Participants wear a white uniform (pants and short robe top) called a ‘do-bok,’ and a coloured fabric belt that shows the rank they’ve achieved. Some women wear an undershirt under the loose-fitting top. You don’t wear shoes.
Where can I find a class? There are classes across the country, but no central registry. Do an online search for ‘tae kwon do’ plus your province or city, or check with your local recreation centre.