Health: How I get my kicks

Kickboxing turned the exercise-hating Victoria Young from a couch potato into a super-fit red belt in just eight months. Now even the muggers are running scared
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The Independent Culture
This time last year, I was your usual exercise-phobe. While I knew the theoretical benefits of regular bouts of aerobic activity, I also, like most people, found the gym a total bore. So, every so often, when vanity overtook inertia, I'd try to find a more interesting exercise solution.

I've yawned my way through assorted Pilates and yoga sessions; I've experimented with "Step" and "Legs, bums and tums". I've dabbled with dance; specifically, belly dancing, "Bollywood grooves", and salsa. But none made the idea of going back a second time - or, more crucially, a third, fourth and fifth - more compelling than, say, sitting on the sofa eating toffees.

So if someone had told me that, by last month, I'd have a red belt in kickboxing and be going to two or three classes a week with unbridled enthusiasm... well, let's just say that the past eight months have thrown up an unexpected plot twist in my relationship with exercise.

I'm not talking about boxercise or a namby-pamby "boxing workout". Paragon Gym in east London is one of the few gyms that exist solely to teach boxing. Located in a Hoxton basement, it's urban hip; exposed brick, no frills. The floor of a mirrored "Dojo", where the action takes place, is carpeted wall to wall with padded mats. There's a boxing-ring in one corner adorned with a couple of punch-bags. The air is heavy with discipline and focus - and hip hop music that usually plays on a stereo in the corner. Most evenings the club is packed to the gills with red-faced men and women grunting sweatily.

I should perhaps add that, among my peers, I am generally more associated with a fondness for the colour pink, Chanel nail varnish and the need to wear matching underwear than for trying to be one of the boys. But since my first class last June, I've become hooked; almost a fanatic. I've restruct-ured my social life to prioritise evening classes. I own my own gloves.

And here's why. For clearing the head and eradicating the day's gripes and irritations, kickboxing is better than meditation. An hour flies by because you empty your mind of everything other than perfecting new techniques, repeating complicated sequences of punches - and avoiding being decked by your partner.

Then there's the physical aspect. An hour's kickboxing burns between 500 and 700 calories, and has all the benfits of a typical aerobics session - it's just five times as hardcore, and infinitely more interesting. Relentlessly aerobic, a typical class incorporates multiple squats, press- ups, leg-raises, stomach-crunches, star-jumps and, of course, vigorous kicks and punches. Although, contrary to popular belief, it's not dangerous or aggressive.

"Kickboxing is never about violence or inflicting negative damage on your opponent," says the ex-world champion Jonathan Lawson, 33, who runs Paragon with his brother Stuart, 31. "It's about technique, strategy, control and generating power. It is about using discipline to channel aggression in a positive way; about fulfilling and testing your own potential. And the mental and physical benefits are huge.

"The appeal is that it is mentally stimulating. You can master the basics relatively quickly, but then you must learn to co-ordinate infinite combinations and sequences. To become a black belt takes at least five years, and even then you're still learning. It is the technical and mental goals that keep you motivated." The physical pay-off will, too; kickboxing promotes a "lean, toned, supple physique".

Many people have the impression that kickboxing dates back hundreds of years to the Far East. The true version of the sport, however, originated in the early 1970s. Tournament practitioners in America, frustrated by karate's limited scoring system, sought to incorporate a full range of combat skills, including power punches and kicks.

Kickboxing has grown rapidly in popularity in recent years, and "aerobic" or "cardio" kickboxing has become one of the most popular disciplines, as it requires no physical contact. These classes, usually including all the movements of a normal bout, offer excellent cardiovascular workouts and are popular with beginners.

Since kickboxing is primarily interval training - which involves short, repetitive bursts of stress for the heart - it accelerates the metabolism, so the body continues to burn calories after a class. "It engages as many fitness principles as possible: aerobic, anaerobic, ballistic, dynamic and static," Lawson says. "This, combined with plyometrics (such as star- jumps) and resistance (such as push-ups) raises the basal metabolic rate. As many of the exercises engage the abdominals and back muscles, it increases balance and co-ordination." It all makes a regular gym workout look a bit weedy.

Most classes at Paragon are an equal mix of men and women, although if anything, says Lawson - especially since films such as Charlie's Angels and, more recently, Million Dollar Baby - new classes attract more women than men. Perhaps that is partly because the leg-raises, squats and kicks that are integral to any class are stupendously effective at tackling the areas many women are unhappy about: thighs, hips, buttocks and stomach. Combine that with lots of stretching to maintain flexibility, and we are talking targeted toning.

"People who do two sessions a week will notice a difference in the way they feel within two weeks and a significant difference in the way that they look in six weeks," Lawson says.

In the past eight years, Paragon has produced 16 British champions, four of whom are women. The majority of punters, though, are there for the exercise, and for fun. The grading system sustains motivation levels; there are five belts: red, purple, blue, brown, then black.

Until you become a red belt you train with the same group each time. Gathering twice a week with the same people to push yourself to sometimes excruciating physical limits produces a strange kind of intimacy. And yet, having spent several hours a week over eight months merrily pummelling and kicking the same people, I have no idea what most of them do for a living.

According to Lawson - who used to have regular sparring matches with his 86-year-old grandmother - kickboxing is suitable for any age group. And classes are full of a range of shapes and sizes. (Although, for those who feel optimistic about trying to flirt while pouring with sweat, the place is positively teeming with hot, fit men and women).

There's another benefit: self-defence. Now I'm a red belt, I don't exactly prowl around looking for a fight. But it does make the game of not getting mugged in Hackney, where I live, a bit more fun, knowing that I'm in with at least a fighting chance.

A group session costs pounds 8, which does - twice a week - add up to more than some gym memberships, particularly once you start investing in protective gear. The difference is, though, that if you don't go you don't pay. And while, believe me, I've felt differently in the past, my current logic is that I'd rather spend pounds 8 on a sweaty hour kicking strangers than on a glass or two of wine in the pub.

Inevitably, there are days when getting off the sofa to go out into the driving rain to get physical seems downright undesirable. All I can say is, on the few occasions that I have had to force myself to go I've never regretted it. After all, if you are smarting from an annoying work situation or an unresolved spat with your sister/boyfriend/child, what better way to get it out of your system than by whacking it out?

So there you have it. I'm a convert, and proud. And while I'm not exactly waking up in the night to drink egg-whites like Hilary Swank did in preparation for her role in Million Dollar Baby, I've never been so fit in my life.

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