The cardio benefits of boxing and kickboxing

With cardiovascular fitness now considered the fifth vital sign of medicine by many in the medical community, sports scientist Dr Luke Del Vecchio looks at why cardio is so important for health.

Cardiovascular or cardiorespiratory fitness – ‘cardio’ as it’s commonly known – is a critical element of good health. Why? In a nutshell, people who are aerobically fit and possess good cardio fitness live longer than those who don’t. This fact has been reinforced by the findings of multiple longitudinal (long-term) research studies1.

A better way to ‘do cardio’

Historically, exercises like running, swimming or cycling, for periods of up to an hour, have been used to improve cardio fitness. These large muscle group activities allow us to operate aerobically and resist undue fatigue. More recently, however, we’ve learnt that we can achieve the same improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness through interval training sessions lasting just 10 minutes or so2.

Interval training involves periods of high-intensity effort alternated with periods of low-intensity effort. Any form of interval training is effective for increasing fitness. Repeated bouts of punching or kicking, interspersed with rest breaks, during a boxing or kickboxing session is just as effective at increasing cardio fitness as those traditional forms of cardio exercise.

Boxing supercharges engagement

While running, swimming and cycling are great ways to get fit, they are actually low-skill forms of exercise that can quickly lead to loss of engagement, and boredom. In fact, studies show that most generic exercise programs are associated with up to a 50% to 60% dropout rate in as little as six months.

Other research, meanwhile, has shown that when we undertake goal-focused, skill-based exercise, such as boxing or kickboxing3, our levels of engagement increase. Participants in this type of activity maintain their engagement simply by mastering the techniques. Not only are they increasing their skills and cardio fitness, but also their likelihood of adhering to their exercise regime.

The science proves it

We know that boxing and kickboxing are effective for improving cardio fitness because metabolic charts (METS) that gauge the effort, or energy, required to do an activity show us that this is the case. For example, in a general boxing for fitness workout, participants generally work up to a 6 MET level, which is equivalent to brisk cycling or slow swimming. It’s impressive that even this type of boxing session, which is actually more focused on technique than on going all-out, will guarantee participants a significant cardio workout.

Research also shows that the average heart rate response during a boxing or kickboxing workout approaches 85-95% of its maximum level4,5,6,7. For any exercise to benefit your cardio fitness, it needs to get your heart rate response to at least 60% of that maximum. Boxing and kickboxing clearly achieve way beyond that.

The message is clear: if you want to improve your cardio fitness, while also developing skills and increasing your chances of sticking with exercise, then boxing and kickboxing are a great alternative to traditional pursuits such as running, swimming or cycling.

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  1. Stofan, J. R., DiPietro, L., Davis, D., Kohl 3rd, H. W., & Blair, S. N. (1998). Physical activity patterns associated with cardiorespiratory fitness and reduced mortality: the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. American journal of public health, 88(12), 1807-1813.
  2. Gillen, J. B., Martin, B. J., MacInnis, M. J., Skelly, L. E., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Gibala, M. J. (2016). Twelve weeks of sprint interval training improves indices of cardiometabolic health similar to traditional endurance training despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment. PloS one, 11(4), e0154075.
  3. de Vries, B., Van Der Stouwe, E. C., Waarheid, C. O., Poel, S. H., van der Helm, E. M., Aleman, A., … & van Busschbach, J. T. (2018). BEATVIC, a body-oriented resilience therapy using kickboxing exercises for people with a psychotic disorder: a feasibility study. BMC psychiatry, 18(1), 1-12.
  4. Kravitz, L., Greene, L., Burkett, Z., & Wongsathikun, J. (2003). Cardiovascular response to punching tempo. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(1), 104-108.
  5. Astorino, T., Baker, J., Brock, S., Dalleck, L., Goulet, E., Gotshall, R., … & Zhou, B. (2011). Energy expenditure during non-traditional physical activities. Journal of Exercise Physiologyonline, 14(3).
  6. Immel, D. D. (1999). Physiological responses to cardio kickboxing in females (Doctoral dissertation).
  7. Ergun, A. T. (2005). Cardiovascular and metabolic responses to noncontact kickboxing in females. San Jose State University.


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