Successful Aging: Self-defense against growing older |

Successful Aging: Self-defense against growing older

Angelyn Frankenberg
Staff Photo |


Many styles and classes are offered in our region. If you’re a novice, take time to talk with instructors to find the right fit. Thanks to the following for visiting with me for this column:

Dean Sarver

James Lee’s Karate (Glenwood Springs and Eagle locations)

1512 Grand Ave., #213

Glenwood Springs


Ernest Mendez

Aspen MMA

1460 E Valley Rd, #012


“Jab, cross, hook,” the instructor fired rapidly, and so did I.

I was more accustomed to aerobics classes, biking and jogging, and trying a basic punching sequence was a new experience.

My visit with Ernest Mendez, owner of Aspen Mixed Martial Arts (Aspen MMA) in Basalt, had turned into a tell-and-show session. Although I was only punching air, and “rapidly” is a relative term, it was exciting. I wasn’t thinking about taking someone out; I was thinking about my stance and balance, anticipating my imaginary opponent’s moves, and letting my body do what it knew it could.

I spent time with Mendez and sensei Dean Sarver, instructor at James Lee’s Karate in Glenwood Springs, to learn about martial arts as a component of successful aging. Over the years, both have seen an increase in the number of people older than 50 taking martial arts classes, many with experience.

Some seniors begin karate or other martial arts classes specifically for self-defense, and many schools offer training in true street-fighting techniques that could help one defeat a would-be assailant.

But the benefits of martial arts training, including improved balance, coordination and spatial awareness, extend to every aspect of life. Practicing complex sequences of moves can also improve one’s memory and overall cognitive function. Most practitioners report increased self-confidence and reduced feelings of vulnerability. All of these benefits can help us take on the inevitable changes of aging with renewed spirit.

Mendez teaches mixed martial arts, “a combat sport that blends the disciplines of jiujitsu, Muay Thai, American boxing and wrestling.” The focus is on biomechanics and both striking and grappling moves emphasize technique over size and brute force.

One of Mendez’s senior students is 73-year-old Philip Popkin (“Pops”), who grew up in Jersey City and became a permanent Colorado resident in 1992. He embraced the active Colorado lifestyle with hiking, biking, strength training and yoga, and even teaching for Skico in the winter.

But Pops, who said he flunked retirement twice, cannot slow down: He added kickboxing at Aspen MMA a little over a year ago. He did some ring boxing as a kid but is enjoying kickboxing now for its overall fitness effects and the camaraderie with other students, young and old.

He emphasized the mental components: “You’re always thinking, anticipating, [trying to figure out] your opponent’s strategy, developing your brain instincts.”

Mendez shared a CBS news story about a boxing program that is helping people who have Parkinson’s disease. Developed in Indianapolis in 2006, Rock Steady Boxing uses professional boxing techniques to slow and even reverse the effects of Parkinson’s: “footwork for balance, punching to steady their tremors …”

Learning about Rock Steady reminded me of John Pepper’s story in Norman Doidge’s recent book, “The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.”

Pepper had gone to that frontier, not with boxing, but with intense walking. He’d had Parkinson’s for over 40 years, and at age 77, was keeping its movement symptoms at bay with 15 miles of fast walking, in three, 5-mile sessions, every week. Neither he nor Doidge claim he had cured the disease — and Pepper points out that the symptoms return if he discontinues his exercise — but his program allowed him to live a full life, and to discontinue medication nine years before, at age 68.

Inspire yourself by reading the book, but the executive summary is that glial cells, long thought to be nothing more than “packing material” in the brain, are really very active. They modify neurons’ electrical signals and produce glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), which helps neurons recover from injury and create new connections. Exercise is essential to GDNF production, and intensity and complexity increase the effects.

Practicing karate and other martial arts engages training partners in a dance of give and take, anticipation, and smooth regulation. The brain’s neurons are participating in the same dance of efficient, effective communication.

I’m convinced. I’ve long been fascinated by martial arts and have thought about trying it as an exercise program. I haven’t yet decided on a style or class, but I’m ready to sign up. I’m ready to leave my ego at the door and respect my instructor, my partner and the art.

I’m ready to engage aging in a new dance.

Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music. Reach her at

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