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Punch Your Way To Inner Peace

Punch Your Way to Inner Peace

The rise of “boxing fitness” has opened up a whole new world of therapeutic possibility.

DEC 02, 20239:00 AM

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.

When Felicia Alexander was 16 years old, her dad died from a heart attack. The loss was both sad and frightening. “Going to sleep at night without my dad in the house felt really scary,” she remembers. There was the emotional aspect of losing a parent, but also the practical: Their home had been broken into before. Without her dad around, she wanted to feel like she could protect herself and her family.

That’s how Alexander ended up in a no-frills boxing gym in downtown San Diego that was full of buff guys who were serious about the sport. When she walked in, the room fell silent. But that didn’t stop her. “The moment I put on gloves, it felt like an alter ego inside of me had been unleashed,” she says. “I felt like a badass.” Hitting the bag provided a huge sense of catharsis, stress relief, and empowerment.

To access that catharsis, you traditionally had to be willing to step into a gym like the one Alexander stepped into back in the 1990s—straight out of the Rocky movies—with a willingness to get hit in the face. If you didn’t want to get hit, you didn’t box.

That’s changed. In the past couple of decades, with the rise of group fitness classes, “boxing” has expanded to include “boxing fitness:” non-contact boxing (hitting a bag or the air) paired with strength training or core workouts, and no expectation that you’ll ever go up against an opponent. That shift has opened boxing up to just about everyone, “which I think is fantastic,” says boxing instructor Colin Bishop, who teaches at BOUT Boxing in Queens. It allows him to work with both youth and adults who come into the gym wanting all the benefits of boxing without the broken nose or concussion. (I was one of those clients this summer, when I dropped into a BOUT Boxing class on a tour of fitness studios I was doing thanks to a free ClassPass trial.)

Boxing has a reputation for being a good workout, and for good reason. Because the sport is organized around three-minute rounds, boxing fitness classes usually feature several short intervals of high-intensity exercise that get your heart pumping and burn a lot of calories. But instructors and even scientists suggest considering its other benefits: As a great source of stress relief, it has the potential to be an effective mental health intervention, too.

Alexander found the sport so empowering as a teen that she wished she could “bottle up that feeling” and sell it. It took a while, but in her mid-40s, she was able to quit her corporate job and open BoxUnion, which now has three locations in California. She quickly noticed that coaches and clients alike were incredibly open about discussing the challenges they were facing outside the studio with one another. “It felt like there was more than just me that really resonated with this,” she recalls. Since then, the studio has integrated mental health into their philosophy, encouraging coaches to be vulnerable, and clients to see boxing as an outlet.

“So often in the fitness world, you hear people say, ‘Hey, this is your time, I want you to leave everything that’s happening in the world outside the doors and make this hour your own,’ ” she says. “We have the opposite philosophy. We want you to bring everything with you inside the room, and do your best to leave it all on the bag.”

One of the most obvious forms of stress relief that comes with picking up gloves is that you can hit things. Bishop’s clients often tell him at the end of a class: “I really needed that, I had a bad day.” Hitting the bag is a way to release anger and stress in a productive way.

But there may be more to it, suggests Johny Bozdarov, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto. Having boxed since he was a child, Bozdarov noticed mental health benefits firsthand when dealing with day-to-day stressors. So when he started studying psychiatry, he wondered if boxing had been studied as a therapeutic intervention.

Poking around in the literature, he identified 16 studies that specifically looked at non-contact boxing and mental health. Overall, the studies demonstrated significant improvements in mood, self-esteem, and concentration, as well as reduction of symptoms related to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Though the studies were mostly low-quality and had small sample sizes (one had only three people), their results were consistent with more beefy analyses that have been done of martial arts and mental health, which found a “significant but small positive effect on wellbeing.”

One of the unique things about boxing for mental health is that it integrates high-intensity aerobic exercise with good old mindfulness. The sport requires a great deal of skill and control, and the three-minute rounds demand full focus. That can be very grounding, especially for a mind prone to wandering. “What’s important in boxing is the grounding techniques that are available in it,” says Bozdarov. “Striking an object keeps you in the moment with technique, whereas if you go running your mind can ruminate a lot.”

Bozdarov sees boxing as an area of untapped potential that warrants more research. He’s created what he calls a mindfulness-based non-contact boxing therapy, which uses boxing alongside more traditional mental health practices. He recently conducted a feasibility study for the intervention at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, and is planning to do a larger clinical trial soon. The hope is that a combination of a workout and therapy in a structured format could improve mental health outcomes while also advancing fitness.

Other boxing programs have paired boxingwith activities like mentoring or meditation. Shape Your Life in Toronto is tailored for people who have experienced trauma. In the U.K., a research project called Empire Fighting Chance combined non-contact boxing and personal development resources in a study looking at the benefits for at-risk young people. Boxing fitness could also be a useful therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease, as a way to manage symptoms. One of those symptoms is gait instability, which leads to frequent falls. Practicing a boxer’s stance—stable and balanced, with hands up by the face—can help reduce risk of falls in those with the neurological disease, according to a 2021 longitudinal study on boxing therapy. Avoiding and recovering from falls is one of the focuses of Rock Steady Boxing, a boxing gym founded with the intention to help people with Parkinson’s. In a large-scale survey of Rock Steady participants in 2020, participants reported less fear of falling, as well as improved social life and a reduction in fatigue, depression, and anxiety, all commonly reported in people with the disease.

But even when it’s not tailored to a particular health condition, boxing encourages behaviors helpful to anyone. In his classes at BOUT Boxing, Bishop intentionally includes a lot of focus on breathwork. He used to have panic attacks that he thinks, looking back, could have been eased with slow, intentional breathing—like the kind of breaths you learn to take during recovery after an intense three-minute round of boxing. He hopes his clients might apply the skills they learn in his classes to real-life situations that cause stress or even panic attacks. That sort of learning could be especially beneficial for men, he points out, who are less likely to seek traditional mental health services.

When I tried boxing for myself, I didn’t know about any of this research, and so I wasn’t expecting too much (my experiment of trying various fitness classes also led me to a “surfing” class on the roof of Margaritaville Resort in Times Square). But indeed, I found in the intense 45-minute session that I had no time to think about all the things I was stressed about. Each round included combinations of punches in a particular order that required concentration. And per Bishop’s philosophy, we focused a lot on breathwork, finding a steady breath and slowing our heart rates after an intense round. I’ve been back to BOUT several times since that first class. After each session I leave the studio feeling exhausted, grounded, and, well, like a bit of a badass.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate andArizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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