Ditch the gym. The key to fitness is boxing

A well-trained boxer is the most thoroughly conditioned human in the sporting world: there is no other sport that demands such a sustained level of ruthless physicality from its participants. If I had to offer one bit of health advice for the Western world, should it ask me, it would be to learn boxing. And when I say boxing, I do mean actual boxing – not ‘cardio kickboxing’, nor any other trendy meld of neutered combat and boring aerobics.

As an on-and-off student of the martial arts since the age of nine, I trained in boxing for several years in my early twenties. Sick of machines and dumbbells, I sought an actual sport, not merely a set of movements, as a path to fitness. Most exercise is boring: that’s why people spend a fortune on gyms they don’t use. If there is a key to getting in shape, it consists of finding a way to work out that doesn’t feel as if you’re going to work. Western boxing was an art I hadn’t yet tried. I found a trainer, a tough older guy with an artificial hip, and learned quickly.

The magic of the boxing workout is its sustained intensity. Bursts of anaerobic activity alternate with shorter rest periods. In contemporary jargon this is known as ‘high-intensity interval training’. It’s a more efficient destroyer of fat – this, at least, is the latest party line from the experts – than traditional ‘steady-state’ exercise such as jogging.

If you’re disciplined enough to endure the torturous first stages of training, you will find that your body, in being forced past its old limits, has acquired new ones. You will also have found a useful skill. There’s far more to boxing than self-defence, but it can come in handy outside the gym. For women as well as men. The impressive Tory MP Charlotte Leslie, running for re-election in Bristol North West, is a formidable boxer and evangelist for the sport – she says it has saved thousands of young people from ‘a life of punch-ups, drugs and alcohol abuse’ and also improves concentration in school.

Though I never competed as a boxer, I was a sparring partner for several who did fight on an amateur circuit. Sparring – actually fighting another human being – is the most intensely physical thing you’ll ever experience. Trust me. Even though it’s a friendly contest, and you’re wearing gloves, pads and headgear, you feel you’re leaving a part of yourself behind after every round. (Boxing is the only sport about which I’m willing to get metaphysical.) It is also exhausting in a way that treadmills and weights could never be. The average self-important runner, who thinks he or she is just so fit – yes, I’m talking to you – will gasp and wheeze through the first three-minute round.

My first sparring session was a harrowing bout with my trainer. Even with that artificial hip, the old man danced around me, hitting me and then – as I stood wondering where that previous shot had come from – hitting me again. I didn’t punch so much as scratch at the air like some deranged cat. And I thoroughly recommend the experience. Boxing is the perfect contrast to the combat with which most Westerners are familiar these days, namely that of the keyboard. Getting hit is a humbling experience, and in the age of Twitter we could all use some more of those.