On Guard: Fencing for the ages

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PLYMOUTH —

Harry Shamir’s fencing career could easily have been a one-time event.

“When I was a teenager, I met one guy who said, ‘Hold onto this’ and I asked, ‘What end?’ He proceeded to wrap his foil around my foil and tossed my saber across the room,” Shamir said. “And that was it till I was 44 when I picked it up again.”

Shamir, 72, of Plymouth, hasn’t stopped since.

While many baby boomers decide to revisit their youth by picking up a childhood interest later in life, Shamir said his return to the sport “was nothing spectacular.” Someone knew of his brief dalliance with fencing as a child and asked if he could share his knowledge in an instructional session. That experience hooked him on being an instructor and led to a passionate love affair with the sport.

Health wise, it’s paid great dividends, too.

“I’m 72 going on 22,” said Shamir, who formed the South Shore Fencing Club (SSFC) in 1997. With the help of a couple of assistants, he holds fencing programs in Plymouth, Middleborough, Hingham, Quincy and Weymouth. Fencing clubs for all ages can be found throughout the state, including the Boston Fencing Club, the nation’s oldest, formed in 1858, in Waltham; Bay State Fencers in Somerville; and the Prise de Fer Fencing Club in North Billerica, which recently began offering a wheelchair fencing program for physically disabled men and women.

The sport is slowly gaining favor as an option for boomers and seniors looking for an interesting way to exercise. Dr. Tom Potisk, a Wisconsin chiropractor and author of Whole Health Healing: The Budget Friendly Natural Wellness Bible for All Ages (Maven Marks Books), said fencing has many positive health benefits.

“The movements, agility training and non-traumatic contact is perfect for seniors, even those with light-to-moderate disabilities like arthritis or joint replacements,” Potisk said. “Some research even indicates that there are mental benefits, like increased cognitive functions (memory and concentration) from physical activities like fencing. People need variety to help make their exercise a life-long endeavor, and fencing is a great addition to the mix.”

As bodies age and develop aches and pains, people tend to try to avoid using those parts they equate with pain, even when it’s not actually the source of their discomfort. Fencing, Shamir said, subliminally causes someone to move in different ways. “You have to use your arms, legs and body, plus your eyes and brain,” he said.

“As we get older, many people suffer from arthritis or the disability of one arm. It would be good if the other could take over. This is where fencing comes in.”

Shamir noted people are born with latent ambidexterity. “By the age of 9, it’s pretty evident it’s one or the other arm you mainly use, but the latency is still there,” he said. “When the dominant hand is injured, the other hand tries to help out. It takes time, but it exists. It’s the brain doing the right thing at the right time.”

Reappropriating the use of our body parts can cause a huge psychological payoff to someone who might otherwise slowly shut down doing everyday things. “It is exactly what is needed,” Shamir said, adding that his business motto is “Take 10 years off your age and add it to life.”

Another unanticipated benefit from fencing occurred when Shamir noticed that most of his younger Saber-K students, ranging from 8-10 years old, were being brought to their sessions by their grandparents. “I said, ‘Wait a minute’ and invited the grandparents to join their grandchildren for free and they did,” he said. “It went well and was very very good.”

The presence of the grandparent meant the grandchild was concentrating and didn’t go into childish behavior. “They were training with someone they could rely on and compete against,” Shamir said. “The grandparents had fun because they could go down to the same level of a kid and encourage them. It was a great bonding experience.”

This summer, Shamir has been talking to South Shore senior centers about expanding his fencing programs to their facilities. “You don’t need much space,” he said.

The Saber-M program for older folk has plenty of opportunity for improvisation. Some participants prefer moving around in a choreographed style while others want the competition of jousting. The latter has added benefits.

“If you’re competing in a bout, you can actually see things better because your mind is sharply focused,” Shamir said. “It combines mind and body.”

There are no worries about stab wounds in Shamir’s program, which utilizes plastic “weapons” that easily bend upon contact while keeping the reactionary benefits of competition. “Anything with sudden stops is an exercise for muscles and tendons,” he said. Like Tai Chi, fencing combines slow and fast motion — like a whirling dervish.”

Next bout, anyone?

For more information: South Shore Fencing Club, call Harry Shamir at 508-747-5803 or email [email protected].