When the instructor coasted into the room, those who were stretching stood and turned their attention to her.
“How’s everyone feeling?” the instructor called.
The audience let out a cheer. There was comfort and familiarity; many of these people were clearly devoted regulars.
“That good, huh? Well, I’ll see if I can change that.”
People laughed; I got scared.
Something that initially worried me about kickboxing was the idea of kicking and punching actual objects. I knew the impact might cause pain to my tender wrists. Looking around the room, there were no punching bags or gloves, or any indication we’d be doing any of that. Now my worry had shifted to our instructor, who had a look in her eye like it was her calling to cardio-kill us.
“Hope ya’ll are ready!” she said, getting her music situated. I was becoming ever more unready.
The music started and I told myself: This instructor is in her mid-late 40s and some people in the audience are in their 60s, so this can’t be that bad. We began by rocking back and forth on our feet, with our hands protecting our faces (from what, I was not sure. Would there soon be jack-in-the-box fists springing from the walls?). We ducked up and down like this for a minute until our legs were burning. Next, we held a body-weight squat and commenced rapid punching. My legs were quivering, on the brink of folding in. In the nick of time — as if she sensed her entire class about to go extinct within the first five minutes of an hour-long class — she got us out of the position.
“Shake it out! Shake it out!”
We were hopping in place to the beat like jump rope, without rope. By this point I could feel my heart drumming in my chest and throat.
Our instructor transitioned into punching sequences: stepping, punching, and kicking all in sync with the rhythm of the music. In these sequences, we changed directions, alternating between left and right punches and kicks. At times, I got turned around, punched with the wrong hand, or turned the wrong direction, and I’d be facing the entire class, instead of the mirror. That was awkward. But I had a healthy sweat going and judging by the heroic vigor of our instructor, it was clear that there wasn’t going to be stopping anytime soon.
As the class progressed, it occurred to me that nothing had been painful to my RA. We weren’t manipulated into positions that put stress on any of my tender joints. Because we weren’t punching or kicking actual things, there was no impact risk there either. Here are the muscles that received a refreshing and challenging workout throughout the kickboxing class.
Legs: By constantly holding body-weight squats, crouching, ducking, and bobbing, my quads were in an ongoing state of crisis (but I appreciated it). Also in between sequences and during moments of “rest,” we simulated jump roping, hopping lightly on our toes, from right to left foot. This gave my calves a nice workout as well.
Arms: This wasn’t a typical arm workout in that there were no weights, nor any body-weight exercises like pushups or pullups. But the constant punching and blocking kept our arms elevated for much of the entire hour, and though it may sound simple, this brought about quite a burn in the shoulders, the traps, and the lats. Because these are uncommon actions for me, and these were muscles that weren’t often exercised, I greatly appreciated this feature of kickboxing.
Core: Usually, when I think about a core workout, I imagine someone lying on their back, doing some variation of sit-ups. Only after kickboxing was it clear to me that you can achieve a considerable core workout while standing. Throughout the class, the instructor would have us uppercut and jab. This caused us to twist our abs while already clenching them in a balanced athletic position. In the last 15 minutes of the class, we cooled down with an ab workout. Our instructor had us hold our feet in the air for excruciating durations, all the while announcing: “Hello abs, where have you been?” Moans filled the room.
Ultimately, I would 100-percent recommend kickboxing to people who have RA. The minimal impact and sustained high energy led to one of the best workouts I’ve had in recent memory. I would say that if you find it painful to stand or move quickly, kickboxing might prove to be a challenge, but if you have relative mobility, and are looking for a new, pain-free and fun way achieve fitness, look into a kickboxing class. Before trying it, as always, consult your rheumatologist.
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Emil DeAndreis is a baseball coach, and an English professor at College of San Mateo. His memoir, Hard To Grip, chronicles his journey of losing a professional baseball career to rheumatoid arthritis. He lives in San Francisco with his wife. Follow along with Emil on Twitter.