James Berry and Edward Watters are proving that it doesn’t matter how old you are when it comes to staying fit and learning how to defend yourself. At 76 years old, Berry and Watters are the oldest students at Don Rodrigues Karate Academy in Warwick, where they are earning their belts in the karate program.
Watters began taking classes at the school roughly four years ago. He recalled walking through Waterplace Park in Providence with his wife when he noticed a group of young kids following him. Watters said he began to feel unsafe, but when he told a police officer about his concern, he was informed nothing could be done until after an incident occurs.
“I knew they were up to no good,” said Watters.
Shortly after that, he took up karate and said he has gained confidence in what he does.
Berry was prompted to join classes after his daughter and grandson began at the Academy as well. Berry, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and two artificial knees, said he already feels stronger after only 10 months of classes. “We do as much as we can. We’re dedicated. We’re motivated,” said Berry.
“I give these guys a lot of credit,” said Don Rodrigues, the owner of the Academy.
Rodrigues, who has been involved in martial arts for 46 years, said it is not uncommon for adults in their 60s to participate in martial arts for exercise. Even two of his black belt instructors are in their 60s. But to have two men in their 70s is quite unique.
Rodrigues can certainly see why the elderly may take an interest in the activity.
“It’s not just kicking and punching,” said Rodrigues. “It’s conditioning.”
Berry and Watters are at the beginning stages of their karate education, with Berry recently earning his yellow belt and Watters his orange. During their Tuesday and Thursday morning adult karate class, the two men, who have become fast friends, practice blocks, basic punches, proper kicks and basic defense combinations.
“The biggest thing they are doing is getting some exercise,” said Rodrigues. “It’s a self-accomplishment.”
Rodrigues said he believes there has been a cultural shift when it comes to the elderly and physical activity. In the past, after someone retired, they were not concerned about finding things to do to keep their life active. But now, those who retire are looking to add 20 or more years to their life with healthy eating habits and activities such as walking or different exercise classes.
“This is hard work,” said Watters, who admits he has trouble remembering all of the combinations and needs to go over things many times to get them right.
But he has seen the benefits.
“I feel more confident in what we do,” said Watters. “I do it for my general health. I want to be able to defend myself.”
Watters also volunteers at Arbor Hill, an assisted living facility in Warwick, teaching seniors how to fall properly and ended up teaching them some of his karate moves for conditioning purposes and stretching. But working with people who walk with canes and walkers or stay in wheelchairs all day also motivates Watters to stay active.
“I don’t want to be in a chair. I don’t want to be in a walker,” he said.
“Why sit in a chair and wait to die?” added Berry.
Their instructor, Kim Smith, said she is very impressed with her two eldest students. She said although Watters admits he struggles with remembering all of the moves, he perseveres.
“Ed doesn’t settle,” said Smith. “He doesn’t stop until he’s learned it.”
Rodrigues, Watters and Berry all encourage individuals of all ages to participate in martial arts as a form of exercise and to learn basic defense techniques. Rodrigues also pointed out that many forms and defense techniques are cane-adaptable.
For more information about the martial arts and kickboxing programs offered at Don Rodrigues Karate Academy, call 737-2809.