If your waistband is a little tight, try a slimming new black belt—a martial-arts belt. And bring the kids. When researchers at New York Institute of Technology tested eighteen men and women, those who practiced a Korean, Taekwon-Do like discipline called Soo Bahk Do at least twice a week for three years were slimmer, stronger, and more flexible than their sofa-bound counterparts. Their body fat composition was a slim nineteen percent, versus thirty-one percent in the sedentary group.

Here’s the bonus: “You can do martial arts with your kids, so the whole family gets fit,” notes lead researcher Peter Douris, EdD. Where is he proof? “I lost over thirty pounds,” says Stuart Forbes, a thirty-two year old DeSoto, professional who has taken martial arts in Midlothian for less than a year. “I’m stronger, better fit, and more flexible than I’ve been since high school,” he says.

To find a martial-arts school that suits your family:

Take a trial run; Try a class or two before you sign up. Know your martial arts school; Teachers range from gentle to tough. Inquire about competition; If the thought of sparring (fighting) makes you quake; find a school that stresses individual skills instead.

Keep in mind, also, that martial arts classes promote better balance and flexibility. If you’ve been trying your hardest to lose weight, you may be tempted to skip stretching and balance exercises in favor of those that offer “better” results. But you’d probably be surprised to know that flexibility and grace are two highly valued fitness commodities that offer immediate and long-term benefits, including less pain, fewer injuries, and more self-confidence. It’s a good idea to work in at least two or three flexibility and balance enhancing sessions every week. Enjoy the sensation of lengthening your muscles and relieving tension. You could even think of it as a free massage you give to yourself. You may find these exercises surprisingly challenging at first, but don’t give up. That increased sense of coordination and grace will translate into everything you do, whether running on the treadmill or just walking down the street.

You may have taken your flexibility for granted when you were in your teens and twenties. But as we get older, we often find it difficult to bend over to tie shoelaces (or your kids’ shoelaces) or turn your head when you back your car out of a parking spot. That’s because we all lose flexibility with age due to a decrease in tendon strength and an increase in tendon rigidity, making your muscles and joints difficult to move.

Stretching slowly and deliberately at least two or three days a week enhances your range of motion and improves your flexibility. Especially after doing weight training and aerobic exercise, stretching is essential to keep muscles limber and to prevent cramping. Increasing your flexibility will enhance your life and allow you to continue performing activities that may get harder as you get older. Merely putting on socks, a simple, daily activity can become a challenge as flexibility decreases. By staying flexible, you can help maintain your own way of life longer.

Stretching also:

improves circulation to your arms and legs improves muscle control improves sports performance maximizes the benefits of strength training improves balance and coordination helps muscles recover from exercise increases range of motion decreases risk of injury relieves and prevents pain improves posture improves self-esteem and self-confidence relaxes and invigorates your body improves overall mood provides an opportunity to take time out for you

Add up the benefits, and it's easy to see why experts say stretching rounds out a complete exercise program. No matter what your age, you can improve your flexibility. In fact, the older you get, the more you need to stretch. You probably don't give your sense of balance much thought, but being able to maintain your balance in a variety of situations is a very real marker of personal fitness.

For women especially, poor balance combined with brittle bones, weak muscles, and inflexible joints can result in a life-altering injury, making it difficult to participate in everyday activities such as getting out of a chair or walking. At the very least, good balance gives you the confidence you need to hang curtains, paint your bedroom, or enjoy exercise like hiking, biking, dancing, or water skiing.

Still searching for that summer body? Try martial arts as a way to build and maintain a healthy, summer body throughout all of your seasons!

Steve Cross is the head instructor and owner of Cross Martial Arts Center in Midlothian. Cross is a 4th Degree Taekwon-Do Black Belt, a Certified International Instructor, and a high school Communications teacher. For question, contact him at (972)775-1857 or www.crosstkd.com.