The mental benefits just might outweigh the physical ones in this stress-busting exercise class.
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

The name of the class seemed self-explanatory, but still I wasn't sure what to expect as I entered my first kickboxing class. Would there be punching bags? Gloves? Would we actually kick one another? If so, I was doomed. I'm more of a lover than a fighter.

But after a quick survey of the average-in-everyway gym exercise room, it looked as if I would come out unscathed, physically. Mentally, I was about to enter a whole new school of hard knocks. I've been skeptical at the outset of a few of the fitness programs I've sampled, but never have I been on the verge of quitting after the first class. Maybe I was having an off day, but I couldn't keep up with the superfast pace or remember the sequenced moves.

Once I finally got into the swing of it, though, I discovered an unexpected side effect: The benefits of kickboxing were as much mental as physical.

True kickboxing is a physical contact sport, but the gym version is really a high-energy aerobics class. You don't face a real opponent, but you get an intense full-body workout, combining a mix of true-to-the-sport punching and kicking drills with strength moves, such as push-ups and squats.

The instructor took his spot in front of the class and laid it out for us. First: Keep breathing. (Um, OK. I didn't anticipate a problem there.) Next: Keep up your guard. That meant protect your face and keep your stance balanced so as not to be knocked down or out by your fictional opponent. In other words, we would be fighting air but could still fall over.

We began warming up with simple jump-rope moves, and by throwing quick punches and kicks, ducking in and out of the way of our imaginary foe. I felt strong. I liked it. Then things went downhill. We started combining moves into one nonstop sequence—two punches, one hook, two uppercuts, one knee lift, one front kick, then a side kick. My head was spinning trying to remember what came next. I realized just how easy it was to forget to breathe. Who had the time?

Worse, the instructor clearly thought we were in training to become future Rocky Balboas. He wanted our greenhorn punches quick, our kicks high, and our movements seamless. I simply wanted to burn calories without having to recall detailed instructions barked out at drill-sergeant decibels. The more punches, hooks, uppercuts, and kicks we combined, the more I kind of bounced around trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I didn't. I was frustrated and on the verge of walking out of the class to find sweaty, silent solace on a treadmill.

After 45 minutes, we transitioned to the conditioning exercises: squats and sit-ups. Finally—something I could do without thinking! Then we hit another snag. The instructor gave us homework: 100 squats and sit-ups before the next class. Was he crazy? I have laundry to do and a bathroom to clean. That's my homework.

The next day, I felt it. My booty and arms were sore. More than that, this was the first exercise class that left me feeling mentally defeated. I took every opportunity to avoid the class for the next week. Then after one stressful workday, I put on my workout clothes and headed to the gym in the nastiest of moods. All I really wanted to do was go to dinner with my boyfriend and eat my way to a better disposition, but I had to give kickboxing another chance.

By the time Rambo started our warm-up, I was full-blown angry, so I let loose on my invisible target. As we progressed into the combo moves, I refused to miss a punch, repeating every move under my breath to help me remember the sequence—right punch, left punch, right hook, left uppercut, right uppercut, left knee lift, right leg kick, right leg kick. Suddenly, I was in the fighting groove. I kept practicing my verbalization technique through the remaining combos, and soon I was working up more than a good sweat; I was also having fun. And before I knew it, the class was finished.

As I walked out of the gym, I realized I had overcome another obstacle: My mood had improved. It wasn't 100 percent and neither was my kickboxing, but the concentration and physical release had pointed me in a good direction. And I had learned a valuable lesson: It's not a good idea to give up on exercise in frustration—especially after your first attempt at something new. Go back and try again. If you don't, you sabotage something more than just a workout. You're giving up on yourself.

Kickboxing was tough for me, but it did its job: It made me a little stronger physically and mentally. For that reason, I'll be back.