The physical and mental benefits of martial arts can last a lifetime, as countless students out there can attest. And as a growing number of Americans begin reaching retirement age, many are looking for new and interesting ways to stay healthy and active.
One instructor who has been working on building a niche among older students is Louis Dibiccari, a Lynnfield resident who has been teaching martial arts for about 50 years. He is currently the owner of Beyond Self Defense in downtown Wakefield.
Dibiccari, or "Sensei Louie" as he is known by many, also teaches students who are as young as 6. He considers himself a somewhat old-fashioned instructor who has students in two-person drills and who only awards one belt a year - and no black belts until a student reaches age 16.
"I really want to teach the kids martial arts - I don't want to just give them awards," said Dibiccari, who started his own journey as a martial artist as a 19 year old in Revere. As a 12 year old, Dibiccari said that he suffered from polio and was barely able to move for a couple of months - something that likely motivated him later in life to stay active and athletic and to avoid his local street corners. A little while later, he joined the Army even though he recalls weighing only about 90 pounds at the time. "If the Russians ever saw me, they would have come over the next day," he joked. Dibiccari also notes that as a boy, he was raised in a home with a sister and a single mother - and his mother didn't even see him doing martial arts until she was in her 90s.
Since then, the 69-year-old Dibiccari has spent time practicing martial arts in Boston and in San Francisco's Chinatown under his sensei Patrick McCarthy, who made Dibiccari an eighth-degree black belt. Dibiccari keeps in touch with his sensei, who lives in Australia, via Skype.
Those who do study martial arts with Sensei Louie will typically learn Japanese (Okinawan) arts such as Shotokan and Shorinji that in turn are descended from the original Chinese martial arts developed at the Shaolin Temple. The style taught by Dibiccari's sensei, McCarthy, is Koryu Uchinadi. The word koryu means "old style karate," said Dibiccari. The sensei has also been practicing chi gong (also known as Chinese medicine, comparable in some ways to reiki) for 36 years, and he is also well-versed in Tai Chi. He actually got his start as a judo student.
In his latest fitness program geared toward seniors, Fit for Life, Dibiccari reports that he has been running about 12 classes a week, and they can come in to the ones they choose. Keeping active remains extremely important as people age, explains DiBiccari, noting that a sizeable percentage of nursing home residents suffer from muscle atrophy.
Classes include breathing and stretching exercises, some balancing, weight lifting, and Tai Chi, and even some line dancing. "They walk out of here feeling really good," said DiBiccari.