At 5 feet tall and 107 pounds, Maria Coste doesn't fit the bill of a typical boxer, not even a lightweight. But she says she can hold her own in the ring.
Her taller opponents usually have a longer reach, a distinct advantage, but she has her own strategy: "I try to get inside punches," says Coste, 43, a telecommunications manager in New York City. "And I have a pretty good defense."
But like many Americans who participate in boxing activities, her goal isn't to KO someone and win a medal. It's to shape up.
At least a couple times a week, she heads to Chelsea Piers Sports Complex in Manhattan for boxing and shadowboxing classes in the studio, and drills and sparring in the boxing ring. "It's a great workout," Coste says. "It helps every part of the body, with stamina, endurance and toning. And it's fun."
The American Council on Exercise named boxing one of the hottest fitness trends for 2008, noting that local boxing clubs have crowded rings and classes full of men and women of all ages. The group says boxing and other "out of the box workouts," such as Latin dancing and outdoor boot camps, are fun recreational activities that "hide the fact that [people] really are exercising."
"Boxing is a very challenging, motivating activity," says Cedric Bryant, ACE's chief exercise physiologist. "It's not just letting me watch the time count down on the cardio machine, for example. It's a combative activity and I think people get this sense of empowerment as well."
A range of activities fall into the boxing category. Kickboxing classes like Tae Bo generally don't involve person-to-person contact and are more aimed at going through the boxing motions to get in a good cardio workout. The hardcore boxing classes and programs now gaining a broader following typically offer punching and kicking drills, jumping rope, plyometric muscle workouts and other training activities. They may or may not involve sparring with a trainer or other participants.
"When you take on boxing you need to decide right up front if you are doing it for fitness benefits or for competing purposes," says Los Angeles personal trainer Gina Lombardi, who has taken and taught boxing and kickboxing classes for more than a decade.
"If you want only the fitness benefits, you need to find a class that does not involve sparring or other full-contact drills," she says. "And there are lots of classes that just work in the bag room or with instructors using teaching pads. You can literally learn how to box without ever getting hit. However, the give and take of 'real' boxing is an entirely different experience."
Burning off calories, blowing off steam
Regardless of whether you actually get in the ring, Bryant says, all the fancy footwork, punching and blocking add up to a good all-around workout, burning 350 to 500 calories an hour for the average person. Boxing also promotes coordination and balance, teaches self-defense skills and offers a good outlet for aggression.
If you're looking to get involved with boxing, it shouldn't be hard to find a class or club that offers it. Survey data from the Boston-based International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, which represents 5,700 gyms and health clubs across the country, show that last year 21 percent of member clubs offered boxing and 40 percent offered kickboxing.
Jim Millman, CEO of USA Boxing, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based governing body of amateur boxing, says his group's membership increased 10 percent from 2006 to 2007, to 35,000 people. They now have almost 1,800 registered boxing clubs in the country.
Millman says he sees more gyms offering boxing programs and classes in part because of growing awareness that boxing offers a great workout. The sport also is gaining interest because some NFL teams now use boxing in their training, he says. And it's most popular in major metropolitan areas.
Jose Garza, 26, started off boxing for sport and competition at West Portland Boxing in Portland, Ore., but now he mainly does it to keep fit. And he says the benefits go beyond the physical.
"For me, it gives me a confidence I never had before," says Garza, who works in remodel construction. "It's a great release for me."
He's been going to the club for six years and enjoys the camaraderie with other members and the staff. "Coach Bill has been like a father to me," Garza says.
Safer sport today?
That's Coach Bill Meartz, a former amateur boxer who started the club in 1978 as a training ground for the Olympics. He says the sport is a lot different today than in decades past.
"Boxing has taken a whole new direction," Meartz says. "It's not on the floor, hitting on the stomach with a medicine ball like we saw in the 'Rocky' movies."
Amateur boxing has gotten much safer, he says, with fewer athletes experiencing the "punch drunk syndrome" from too many blows to the head. He attributes improved safety to several factors, including fewer and shorter bouts in the ring and better gloves and other protective equipment.
Still, he points out, with the true sport of boxing, "the object of the game is to strike the other person" and there is risk involved.
Millman of USA Boxing maintains that amateur boxing, the way it is advised through his group, is "incredibly safe."
The American Academy of Neurology, however, has long opposed boxing on the grounds that blows to the head can cause concussions and permanent brain damage.
"One punch could do it," says neurologist Dr. Barry Jordan, a spokesperson for the academy. And over time, repeated blows can take a cumulative toll. "The more you're exposed to the sport, your risk goes up. About 20 percent of professional boxers can have chronic brain injury."
As the chief medical officer for the New York State Athletic Commission, Jordan oversees boxing for the state and "tries to make it as safe as possible" with medical screenings for all athletes and ringside medical assistance and supervision at all matches so that athletes can be pulled from competition when deemed necessary.
"When people are boxing for fitness, if they're not having any contact, I think it's safe," Jordan says. "If you're not hitting hard or trying to hurt the other person, it's probably OK. If you're actually doing forceful hits, there's a concern there."
Besides injuries to the head, there is also the risk of rib fractures and damage to internal organs such as the liver, spleen and kidneys, he notes.
When sparring, which is recommended only for more advanced boxers who've mastered their moves, participants are urged to wear protective gear, including gloves, headgear, mouthpieces and cups.
But headgear doesn't guarantee full protection, says Jordan. It protects against facial injuries but not necessarily against concussions, which are often caused by "rotational acceleration," such as when a blow to the chin spins the head back, he says. "The headgear doesn't prevent the rotation of the head."
You don't have to be knocked out to sustain a concussion, emphasizes Jordan. Other signs of a concussion include confusion, loss of memory, headache, agitation, difficulty concentrating and dizziness. All are red flags to seek medical attention.
For many people who box for fitness rather than sport, the bigger risk likely is an injury to the shoulder, elbow or wrist from improperly hitting a heavy bag, says Bryant of the American Council on Exercise. He recommends meeting with a qualified trainer who can teach how to properly execute boxing moves.
Although she works out at the House of Champions in Los Angeles, Rebekah Amirkhizi isn't worried about competition or concussions. She does boxing and kickboxing to get in shape and spend time with her husband and three kids, ages 17, 9 and 6.
When her middle child wanted to take karate a couple years ago, she signed him up at the facility, which offers a range of martial arts, and then the whole family got involved.
"It keeps us all together and affords us family time," says Amirkhizi, who's 44 and helps to manage an aircraft interior business from home.
"And when I'm having one of those days," she says, "hitting and kicking that bag is a really, really great way to relieve some stress."