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Deconstructing boxing

Why boxing makes you feel good

Those of us who have caught the boxing bug know it; those of us who haven’t yet have heard it: boxing makes us feel really good. But why? Isn’t it violent, barbaric and destructive? Actually, the opposite: there are scientific, historical and emotional reasons why boxing just could be the most positive form of exercise you can do.

Boxing actually reconnects us with our primeval selves. Whether we like to admit it or not, the urge to hit is a natural human instinct that has been part of our genetic makeup since the evolution of man. Most of us have had years of conditioning to repress our urge to hit others, but will still feel that urge as we slam our hands on the steering wheel in frustration, bang our fist against a hard surface when we’re angry, want to hurl something hard when we’re upset: and boxing provides us with a safe, acceptable environment in which to release that instinct.

And releasing that urge is not negative: boxing channels anger, frustration and upset into something positive and productive: “The bag presents you with something to confront, a symbol of the issue you need to tackle psychologically, allowing you actively to deal with it,” describes Elle Magazine.

Scientifically speaking, boxing decreases negative stress hormones like cortisol and releases endorphins which make us feel good in the short term, as well as strengthening our emotional resilience in the long term. American scientists conducted a study on the effect of exercise on mice. Stronger mice and weaker mice were placed in a cage together. The stronger mice bullied the weaker mice, who displayed signs of extreme stress and nervousness, cowering in dark corners and freezing on the spot when placed in unfamiliar territory. However, when the meeker mice were given the chance to exercise before being placed back in the cage with the stronger mice, the bullying affected them much less, and they bounced back to their normal, happy selves when alone again. The scientists looked at the brain cells of these mice and discovered that they exhibited more activity in their medial prefrontal cortex and their amygdala, which process emotions. Exercise had given these mice emotional resistance.

There is indeed way more to boxing than punching: it’s mastering intricate techniques and infinite combinations of precise moves in a sequence that’s reminiscent of a well-choreographed dance. It’s improving one’s body in a way that is dramatic and speedy. It’s about being able to raise the bar for how fast, strong and accurate you can be. It’s confronting and overcoming fear. And it’s feeling the profound sense of achievement that comes with all this.

And all this in a community, not alone. Said Seth Stevenson, “I loved the camaraderie after a sparring session or a fight, when you’re all jazzed on adrenaline and eager to dissect every punch and counterpunch.” Such communities are often comprised of people from all walks of life, united by their love of boxing: a sport that is a complete leveller. Nelson Mandela captures this concept beautifully in Long Walk to Freedom:

"Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant . . . I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again."

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