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Senior Self-Defense: Is There a Black Belt in Your Future?

Martial arts are a great way for people of all ages to protect themselves 

By Mike Dunphy | January 23, 2013

In a dimly lit building in the Bronx, a barrel-chested, tattooed man in a black T-shirt creeps up behind a gray-haired man fumbling with his mailbox key. The thug draws a revolver and presses it against the back of the man’s skull. Someone gasps.
 
The gunman turns to a crowd of onlookers and asks, “How much time have you got?”
 
“Two seconds!” call out the two dozen men and women in their 50s and 60s.
 
“How long?” he asks again. “Two seconds!” they repeat in unison.
 
“Exactly,” the gunman/instructor says. “You have two seconds to execute a technique before they do something to you.”
 
And with that, George Reyes demonstrates a defensive move that starts with a high sweep of the arms, followed by a spin and an arm lock to disarm the assailant.
 
How to Pick an Appropriate Program
 
Self-defense classes like this one taught by Reyes at the Bronx House, a community and cultural center on the Pelham Parkway, have become increasingly popular with older students over the past decade. Today you can find such programs at martial arts studios (dojos) — like the popular “Silverbacks” at Modern Warrior in Lindenhurst, N.Y. — and places like the Landover, Md., police station or the Area Agency on Aging in Jonesboro, Ark.
 
Rocco Ambrose, owner and chief instructor at Ambrose Academy in Livonia, Mich., notes that 40 percent of his students are over 50. “Today’s seniors perceive themselves differently than past generations,” he says. “They pride themselves on a healthier lifestyle, and they work hard to maintain a level of fitness that allows them to continue to participate in an active lifestyle.”
 
Before taking a self-defense class, new students need to realistically assess both their own physical fitness and the demands of the course. Styles like Judo, for example, involve a lot of grappling, tumbling and takedowns and lead to serious injuries if the participant is not in decent shape. For those people, gentler yet effective styles, like Wing Chun or Aikido, would be a better option.
 
Sometimes Arthur Pryor, 68, a martial arts trainer for more than 40 years, suggests beginning with T'ai Chi, whose slow, graceful movements can be practiced by anyone, even if they have limiting conditions. While T'ai Chi isn’t a self-defense discipline per se, many of its movements are drawn from Chinese martial arts, making it an easy bridge to more active versions.

(MORE: Trying T'ai Chi for Health and Happiness)
 
Reyes begins each class with a T'ai Chi warm-up, but when it comes to actual self-defense, he preaches the effectiveness of short, sharp jabs and debilitating thrusts of the knees. “Usually in a dojo, you learn clean fighting,” Reyes explains. “I’m teaching street fighting, and you can’t fight clean in the street.” For example, he instructs students that a thumb in the eye is a great move in an emergency.
 
For people willing and able to take a more aggressive approach, there’s no shortage of options. At Modern Warrior, Silverbacks teaches a style based on Bo Fung Do, a form of Kung Fu. In the class, instructors simulate realistic environments where assaults are likely to occur, including such confined spaces as a car, hallway or elevator. They even train students for different climates (using snow-making machines), because people tend to react more slowly in those conditions.
 
The course also promotes mental toughness: The sparring room is decorated with signs emblazoned with powerful affirmations, like “I will survive” and “I will win.”
 
In Lake Tahoe’s Incline Village in Nevada, instructor/owner Mark Shuey Sr., adds an unlikely weapon to the mix. His popular “Cane Fu” transforms the benign walking tool into a near-lethal weapon. In a trained student’s hands, a cane can jab, block, hook and even knock out would-be muggers. Now with 25 certified branches and 300 instructors worldwide, Shuey’s program has been featured on ABC News and even the Colbert Report.
 
Fringe Benefits of Self-Defense
 
Aside from the obvious increased sense of safety and confidence that students get from these classes, there are physical benefits, namely improved coordination, balance, flexibility and overall strength. For Rose Sheehan, 58, of Sunrise, Fla., her study of the 2,000-year-old Korean martial art, Tang Soo Do, a moderately vigorous martial art, has been a great way to “grow young” and she credits it for much of her vitality.

“I went through menopause without symptoms,” she says. “And I have almost entirely reduced pain in my joints and lower back. I’ve developed a strong and balanced musculature, which has helped me avoid falling down.” In her 14th year of practice, she took a Bio-Fit test, which calculates your biological age. The result? Sheehan has the body of a 35-year-old.
 
Vince Spakowski, who teaches the Silverbacks class, points to another, perhaps less tangible benefit. “Students learn to not use their age or physical limitations as an excuse to avoid or eliminate challenges from their lives,” he says. “This makes their lives more fulfilling and more satisfying.”

(MORE: Want to Be a Healthy Senior? Get in Shape Today)
 
Practical Training
 
While it’s hard to find anyone who has actually experienced a mugging or used the technique to defend themselves, statistics do show a troubling upward trend of physical attacks in assault, robbery and burglary against the elderly.
 
In Tennessee, for example, a 2011 study revealed a 7 percent increase in such attacks, and in Michigan, a report by the Justice Department found that more than half of violent crimes against the elderly involved serious violence, including murder, rape and aggravated assault.
 
When the U.S. Congress directed the Government Accountability Office to investigate the problem, it found that 14.1 percent of non-institutionalized older adults had experienced some kind of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse or neglect or financial exploitation in the past year.
 
A good karate chop is no defense again investment fraud, but self-defense students report improved feelings of personal security. It teaches them to be aware of their environment and to be prepared for potential problems. As Arthur Moody, who’s going for his black belt at Modern Warrior, says, “Even though I'm 64, I know how to defend myself, so I don't feel so vulnerable.”
 
Mike Dunphy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia, taught English in Europe and Turkey for 10 years and now writes about arts, culture and travel from his home base in New York City.