Fighting For Fitness

Virginia Pereira likes to make things happen fast. Two years ago the 27-year-old Los Angeles actress put on 12 pounds for a movie role, assuming she would shed them when the filming was over. But when the time came to part, the 12 pounds wanted to stay. "I went to Gold's Gym, and I hired personal trainers, but I never got results," she says. In frustration, Pereira turned to tae bo, a hot new regimen that approaches martial-arts training at the bunny-hop speed of an aerobics class. The weight came off quickly--and a year later, Pereira is still avidly attending classes. "I love that I'm learning real karate kicks," she says. "If you can tap into your spirit, you can get your body to do anything."

Martial arts are no longer just about self-defense. Like Pereira, countless Americans are discovering that these disciplines are as healthful as anything you can do at the gym--and often far more fulfilling. Tae bo aside, the traditional arts offer something for almost everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. Kung fu or karate can help kids learn concentration and self-control. Any athlete can gain stamina and agility from tae kwon do (nothing says cardio like an hour of flying kicks). And tai chi chuan can help even the sick and elderly improve their strength, flexibility and coordination. "I'm just going to get better at it for the rest of my life," says tai chi enthusiast Karen Polk. "I don't think you can say that about any other sport."

Deciding on a martial art can be a daunting task, because the choices are endless. But anyone can start with tai chi. Slow-moving and methodical, it can be adjusted to any fitness level, and it won't jeopardize joints or muscles. That's why Polk took it up. Active all her life, the 43-year-old suffered a back injury in 1996 that left her unable to lift a bag of groceries, much less whoosh down a ski slope. When a yoga therapist turned her down, she decided to try tai chi. Polk says it was slow going at first, but after six months she was back to normal activity. And a year later she moved on to kung fu. "Tai chi gave me the second part of my life back," she says.

Kung fu, the oldest of the Asian arts, is similar to tai chi. The moves are smooth and graceful, many of them named after the animals they imitate, but they're punctuated by quick kicks and punches. For students at the Chinese Kung Fu Wu Su Association in New York, the benefits of the art are more mental than physical. "[Kung fu] is not about violence," says Elizabeth Wootan, who has studied at the association for 10 years. "It's about learning control, learning not to hurt people."

Most of today's martial arts are kung fu offshoots that bear the stamps of different cultures. Tae kwon do, a Korean variant with a huge following in the United States, is known for its rigor and intensity. At World Champion Tae Kwon Do in Brooklyn, where I study, a large sign over the dojang's mirrors reads MY GOAL IS BLACK BELT. It's a good reminder, because getting there usually takes at least three years--and a newly minted black belt is still considered a novice. Kicking is king in tae kwon do (making it a perfect workout for thighs that are getting jiggly with it), but the emphasis is on form. You won't spar with a partner until you've spent a year mastering kicks and punches, and memorizing elaborate combinations called tae guk.

If dedication to tradition is not your style, many gyms offer martial-arts-inspired workouts like tae bo and kick boxing. Whereas traditional martial-arts forms move students slowly through a belt system, a newbie in tae bo has no warm-up. In Los Angeles, at the Billy Blanks World Training Center, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" is booming at three times the normal speed, and a crowded class is trying to keep pace with the instructor. "I don't understand how one fat cell can survive in that class," says first-timer Jennifer Patterson, 26. "I felt like I was going to pass out." In Boston, 18-year-old Becky Wittenberg is equally effusive. "It's addictive because you see results," she says.

Kick boxers use the same word to describe their discipline, and women from coast to coast are taping up their hands for the bullet-paced classes. In Corte Madera, Calif., the rage is a new variant called crush kick, which incorporates elements of boxing. "Women really go for it," says Nancy Gallagher, group fitness director at the Gold's Gym in Corte Madera. "They're all going, 'Yah! Yah! Yah!' "

Before you jump on any of these trains, be sure to visit a few studios and talk to other participants. The disciplines don't all have official associations, and the quality of instruction can vary. Be wary of teachers who claim to be "tenth degree" black belts in any field. There are a only handful in the world, so it's doubtful that two live in your neighborhood. Talk to prospective instructors about your goals and abilities. And if you study at a gym, find out whether the instructor is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine or an organization like the American Council on Exercise (800-825-3636, or www.acefitness.org).

Martial arts are not terribly dangerous. Dr. Freddie Fu, head of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, notes that horseback jumping is far riskier. But kicking and punching can cause injuries--even when you're not facing an opponent. I learned that the hard way. In early February, just after earning a purple belt in tae kwon do, I landed on the side of my foot after doing a jumping back kick and ended up in a cast for six weeks. But it came off last week, and I expect to be back on the mat soon, yelling "Hiyahh!"