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Contact sports are attracting an older crowd

David Opie, a physicist by day and a boxer by night, is part of a nationwide movement of older professionals taking part in contact sports like boxing and karate.
By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, September 30, 2010

A person reaches a certain age and realizes there is more to life than managing that next business project and pounding out the miles on a treadmill when the workday ends.

For some, it is the thud of a right cross to the face or a swift kick to the ribs.

Some middle-aged professionals, bored with the typical range of fitness options, are turning to contact sports such as boxing and karate that long have been the province of younger, less brittle competitors. The sports provide a bit more excitement than traditional workouts, require attention to strategy and tactics, and force devotees to develop new skills, such as coping with the reality of someone charging across a mat to knock you on your butt.

"It's kind of fun. It's different. It's something new," says Janet Magina, 53, a manager at Boeing in Annapolis Junction who started learning to box in January at Club One Fitness in Millersville. "You work out some aggression."

"What are we doing here? We're all trying to fend off the march of time," says David Opie, 49, a physicist and vice president at Noxilizer Medical Devices by day. "That's what I'd like to achieve physically."

Opie is no pencil-necked, pocket-protectored scientist. He stands more than six feet tall and weighs 230 pounds. Magina says she's "been hitting things all my life," as a former kick-boxer and karate student.

I watched them spar with a dozen other people recently at Club One in a session that their instructor kept at less than half speed. I thought I might put on some gloves and give it a try, but a few minutes of observation is all you need to realize that if you don't know what you're doing, you'll spend the evening with 16-ounce boxing gloves glancing off your head or buried in your midsection.

Besides, before boxers are allowed to spar, they must go through intensive conditioning that they uniformly say is the toughest regimen they've ever experienced. The workouts include core work, running, rope-jumping and hitting light and heavy bags. They emphasize balance and coordination along with cardiovascular development, strength-building and flexibility. "We don't lift weights, but it is a total, complete workout," Opie says.

Club One, located in an Anne Arundel County office park, has all the accouterments of a typical gym: elliptical machines, weights, a mirrored studio. But in the middle of the large room is an Olympic-size boxing ring, and there are plans to add a mixed martial arts cage. The place bears no resemblance to the worn, dingy boxing gyms of Hollywood movies, even though some Gold and Silver Gloves fighters, and a few pros, have trained there, says Christen Jeter, the club's general manager.

I couldn't find any good numbers on whether more working professionals are turning to contact sports. But one part of the movement, known as "white-collar boxing," is enjoyed by thousands in gyms across the globe and has its own association. The competitions started in Brooklyn's famed Gleason's Gym in the late 1980s and have spread to England and Asia.

On fight nights, bankers, traders and hedge-fund titans pay a few dollars to mix it up in three-round bouts that have no winners or losers, says John E. Oden, a money manager at AllianceBernstein L.P. who has written two books on boxing as a result of his experiences in about 20 of the fights. According to a 2005 USA Today article, 65 percent of the membership at Gleason's were white-collar hobbyists, and they were the main source of revenue for boxing gyms in other major cities, including Detroit and Los Angeles.

The workouts were phenomenal and the fights exhilarating, says Oden, who competed for 13 years and describes his age only as "the dark side of 50." But perhaps most important, the lessons learned in the ring -- managing fear, ignoring pain -- are directly applicable to the real world, he says.

"You learn to accept pain as part of it . . . ," he says. "Overcoming pain is something we all have to do. The pain of loss. The pain of disappointment. Physical pain. Being able to take that in and absorb it and go on" is one of the most important concepts.

"This is what life is all about," Oden says. "Realizing what you're up against and how to get around it."

Club One Fitness provides boxing lessons Monday through Thursday at 6:15 and 7:15 p.m., and Saturday at 10 a.m. The cost is $47 per month (the price of a club membership). Boxers must bring their own gloves and handwraps. 1131 Benfield Blvd., Suite M, Millersville. 410-729-3900. http://www.club-one-fitness.com.

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