When you think about getting into a fight with someone, an unassuming, precious grandmother probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind.
But in Ramsey, New Jersey, an increasing number of women in their 60s and 70s are signing up to learn krav maga — a self-defense system developed for the Israeli military that combines techniques from boxing, wrestling, and a variety of other martial arts.
And my mother is one of these women.
“There are no rules in krav maga. It’s to do whatever you have to do to get out of that situation safely,” Tony Racciatti, the owner of Krav Maga NJ, tells Yahoo Health. “We teach about home invasions, shirt grabs, getting your handbag stolen, getting backed into a corner, and carjacking. It’s all about learning stuff that happens every day.” In fact, Racciatti is seeing “more and more women over 50 … trying krav maga because you don’t have to be there for years to learn a technique,” he says. “The progress that I see in these women is that they feel less fear, they develop more flexibility and I see their ability and the awareness to react to something quickly.”
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Indeed that’s the impetus for 60-year-old Suzanne Lippe — a.k.a. my mom, seen in the image above — to learn this street military training. “One of my biggest goals is to be able to stay active and healthy enough to play and do a lot of activities with my grandchildren,” Lippe says. It’s also important to “know that if I was to go some place with them, I would be able to protect them.”
Fellow krav maga practitioner Rodlyn Park, 70, appreciates how the practice takes her out of her comfort zone. “And, I was attracted to the fact it was very practical,” she tells Yahoo Health. “It’s made me more confident and the intimidation factor has changed dramatically.”
Rodlyn Park, 70, demonstrating a krav maga move. (Photo courtesy of Jordi Lippe)
One of the main points in krav maga is de-escalation, which is getting out of a dangerous or violent situation before it even happens. “The techniques are designed to work against people of all different sizes and statures,” says Racciatti. “It’s quick and direct and geared toward saving your life. It’s about making the attacker unable to pursue his attack.”
Learning what to say and how to use everyday objects, such as a purse, in a dangerous situation are key components of the process. “We learn how to tell people to back off in a forceful way and it wasn’t until I started to do that did I realize how much we need that,” Park says. “At my age, I’m taught to be nice to people and passive, and krav maga has taught me that at appropriate times you can yell at someone to protect yourself.”
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But krav maga isn’t only about self-protection — it provides a great aerobic and strength-training workout. “The workout is very important because if you’re not able to withstand a situation for a couple of minutes, you are going to fail,” Racciatti says. His class involves 15 minutes of cardio and toning at the beginning, as well as 5 minutes of stretching.
“It’s an incredible amount of cardio,” says Park. “You’ll be doing 30 minutes of punching and kicking drills on top of strength training like sit-ups and pushups. I have great definition in my arms and back now.”
Lippe says the sport keeps her feeling young. “I get a tremendous amount of flexibility and I think that keeps you from aging,” she says. “It protects and helps to prevent your body from typical ailments that affect your body as you get older.”
And as these women’s bodies are getting shape, so, too, are their minds. “It was important to not let what was unfamiliar to me to shrink down my world because, to me, that’s old age,” Park says. “It isn’t so much chronological years — it’s becoming rigid and becoming afraid of being spontaneous or doing new things. It’s very important to embrace and try new things.”
Unlike other workout classes where you can zone out or daydream, krav maga forces a person to constantly anticipate what to do and think strategically in an instant. Studies have shown that this way of thinking in martial arts has cognitive and behavioral benefits, including building self-esteem and self-efficacy.