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Exercise in the New Year: Boxing to box step

New Year’s resolutions to eat less, de-stress and get fit swell the ranks at Vero’s gyms and clubs and fill the paths at Riverside Park. But there are other options besides putting one foot in front of the other — over and over and over.

From boxing to box step, we look at two other exercise alternatives that are a world away from workout drudgery.

On a recent warm weekday morning, Libbie Ely of Sandpointe and Carol Brandon of the Moorings step out of the sunshine and into the gloom of Sweet Science Training Center. Dressed in yoga pants and tank tops, they hop into the boxing ring for the warm-up boxers shuffle – more of a sashay, in their case.

Industrial fans circulate air stale with sweat and iron; the view out the picture window of the tough-looking gym, located in the Maxwell Building in Vero’s downtown, is inspirational in a ‘Rocky’ kind of way: six lanes of U.S. 1 and a truck advertising a bail bondsman.

Only the bubble gum pink boxing gloves, which match the heavy bag, suggest that this is not some kind of aberrant event – that Ely and Brandonl are among a growing number of women enthusiastically embracing the one-time almost exclusively male sport. At Sweet Science, junior middleweight fighter Chris Gray trains twice as many women and children as men.

“I take average people and turn them into extraordinary athletes,” says Gray, who opened Sweet Science with partner R.J. Moore in April.

Boxing as a workout has been growing in popularity over the past decade. Rigorous, controlled, and exhausting beyond belief, it raises the heart rate quickly, burning calories and strengthening muscles throughout the all-important core. It also targets areas that an average gym workout may overlook: the lower back, the back of the thighs, the upper arms.

But it was the Oscar-winning 2005 film, Million Dollar Baby, which seems to have motivated more and more women to start hitting the bag. A dozen or so beachside women and their kids now train with Gray, as well as a couple dozen more from other parts of the area.

“It feels a little foreign to women at first. It’s kind of a brutal thing if you think about it,” says Moore, who boxed in the Marine Corps and has been a fan ever since. “But you’re getting a lot of aggression out, while you build strength and endurance. And you’re only hitting a bag.

“Women listen, and they have focus,” says Moore. “That’s what coaches and trainers like to see.”

On this morning, three middle age moms from Sebastian mischievously crank up the sound system; The Temptations are now opponents in absentia.

The pace picks up markedly. The trio of moms replace Ely and Brandon in the ring and improvise their own shuffle, which now includes a hand-clapping Fly Girls-style free-for-all. Trainer Gray turns an apparent blind eye, pairing off Ely and Brandon, one tossing a medicine ball to the other executing killer sit-ups on an incline.

The sit-ups are part of Gray’s traditional workout, which also includes intervals of skipping rope. The shuffle is supposed to warm up a boxer by reinforcing foot spacing and agility; though it may not further form, what is lost in this shuffle is weight, and inhibitions.

Gray dons flat black mits and jumps in the ring with Helen DiBenedetto, who promptly puts her pink gloves up to her face. The taunting dance begins, as Gray goads the trim, muscular blond into hauling off and hitting him.

“Don’t hit me like a mommy,” he chides.

“Don’t Scooby-doo me,” she retorts, wary of his rolling pretend punches.

“We look like we’re flailing,” says DiBenedetto, a portrait and pet photographer. “But he instructs us on the mechanism and the science of boxing. There’s a method and strategy to every punch.”

She demonstrates throwing a right jab while stepping up, then pivoting her back foot with the number two punch. “It’s a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge, which can’t do anything but benefit your brain as you get older. If you do the same thing day in and day out, you’re just going to stagnate.”

That’s what keeps the women coming. Gray allows this no-frills, no pretense workout a wide berth to keep things fun.

“He makes us do a million different things,” says Mary Williams, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom who has trained for six months. “Every ten minutes we switch. He recognizes our limits but he’ll push us to our limits.”

“He’s pushing like a personal trainer,” says Carol Brandon, a computer program designer who lives in the Moorings. She has just signed up her daughter and son, part of a growing group of St. Edward’s kids training with Gray. “It’s turning into a family affair,” says Brandon.

Sweat beads up under Libbie Ely’s blonde wisps as Gray calls out positions to punch on a hanging bag.

Moore recognizes the arc of the beginner. “It’s amazing,” he says. “They come in, they’re barely touching the bag, and when they leave the bag is rocking.”

When a friend, Betty Howard, signed up at the boxing gym three months ago, Ely decided to have a go too.

“He had to give me Freeze-it the first few times,” she says, remembering how the pain relief gel got her through those first weeks. “I was working muscles I had never worked before, your abs and legs, the back of your thighs and the gluts – that muscle in your rear.”

Ely has had memberships at gyms around town, but the typical workout was never her style. “It’s just so boring going to a gym and working with machines. I’m not motivated to go.”

Scheduling a session with Gray gets her there, and something about the workout feels fresh and challenging. “It’s like a guy’s gym – there’s nothing frou-frou about it,” says Ely. “Just a boxing ring and some punching bags. It’s just refreshing because I knew that I was going to work on what I needed to work on.”

Ely’s punches in the ring are less than convincing; the ring is her least favorite part of the workout. So Gray tailors her workout to the punching bags instead.

“He treats everybody individually, and if you’re into boxing, that’s what he’s going to train you for. But if you’re not, you can just punch against the boxing bag. That’s great cardio and eye-hand coordination.”

Though it all, Gray himself gets something of a workout. Named Outstanding Boxer in Louisiana in 2001, the 32-yearold boxer started as a welterweight at a boxing club in his neighborhood at 15, and began boxing in amateur fights soon after. He went on to fight in four national championships.

Four years ago, he came to Vero Beach to train with local world class trainer Buddy McGirt. His pro-fights include a unanimous decision last month in a fourround bout in Miami. But with his students, it’s all show. Mock body blows keep the women on their toes, but his manner couldn’t be more genteel.

The women, on the other hand, are another matter. Cat calls, fist pumps, hoots and cheers of “Get him!” are part of the fun.

“It’s a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge, which can’t do anything but benefit your brain as you get older,” says DiBenedetoo. “If you do the same thing day in and day out, you’re just going to stagnate.