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Get fighting fit . If you can't face another workout on your stepper or if you're bored by exercise machines, action-pack your workout with karate. Putting some chops, kicks, and stretches into your exercise routine can make it fun and it's a great way of strengthening and toning your muscles.

How does it work?

You don't have to be the next Jackie Chan to have fun with karate - there are classes available for all abilities. Karate classes usually begin with a warm-up routine; your martial arts instructor will have you running around and doing high-energy moves to get your joints, muscles and tendons flexible and ready for action. Once you've got your heartbeat on the go, it's time to stretch. You're not trying to become a contortionist, but stretching is vital to expand the range of limb movement to avoid injury later on.

Karate can be practised as a combat sport or as self-defence training which is done with a partner. A bit like ballet or yoga, postures are an important element of karate - known as karate kata. These kata are defensive positions which you master to keep your opponent at bay - reassuring to know when you're walking down dark alleys.

The postures are based on training also known as kumite which literally means "meeting of hands." Kumite is practiced both as a sport and as self-defence training. This is the sparring we associate with karate fights. For these parts of the class you will be split into pairs, but beware, picking the smallest partner won't always be the easiest for you - karate is more about your level of skill than the size of your biceps.

Body conditioning is also a useful element of Karate - this involves working with pads and props which you strike to build your strength, stamina, speed and muscle coordination.

The fact that you don't need to be sumo-size to be a karate black belt means that it's a great sport for women too. In fact, in many schools, they do not distinguish between genders at all. If you have a good martial arts instructor like Mr. Miyagi from the film Karate Kid, you too can be like Ralph Macchio!

Loose clothing is a must as it will allow you to move around freely - this doesn't have to be the famous white pyjamas; jogging trousers, and a t-shirt, with bare feet would be ideal. When you are confident that you want to continue with karate training you can purchase yourself a Gi which is the cotton jacket and trousers worn in karate.

Is it for me?

Besides being fun, the benefits of martial arts are tremendous. Increased self-confidence, energy, strength, stamina and mental capacity are a few of many rewards. If you want a fun way to burn calories then this is for you. Martial artists also report reduced stress levels, fewer physical injuries and a strengthened immune system. This form of exercise has evolved as a good way to learn to stretch your core muscles, build up your strength, and learn about self defence all at once. Certainly beats jogging on the treadmill for 45mins.

Good to know

Karate began as a common fighting system known as 'ti' or 'te' among the pechin class of the Ryukyuans. After trade relationships were established with the Ming dynasty of China by Chuzan King Satto in 1372, many forms of Chinese Martial Arts were introduced to the Ryukyu islands by the visitors from China, particularly Fujian Province. A group of 36 Chinese families moved to Okinawa around 1392 for the purpose of cultural exchange and shared their knowledge of the Chinese martial arts. The political centralization of Okinawa by King Shohashi in 1429 and the 'Policy of Banning Weapons,' enforced in Okinawa after the invasion of the Shimazu clan in 1609, are also factors that furthered the development of unarmed combat techniques.

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