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When lifelong athlete and karate instructor Shantell Dawson found herself falling away from her fitness routine and years of martial-arts training, she responded in a way that would help both herself and countless others to tackle the all-too-familiar struggle of sticking to a workout.
Instructor of her own "Kick Fit" fitness class, Dawson has led several dozen adults on a three-year adventure in exercise that most say they couldn't have kept up had it not been for their teacher's down-to-earth approach and good example.
Most who know the 28-year-old would find it hard to believe she ever faced any stumbling blocks, with karate and fitness being such a part of her day job.
A karate student since the tender age of 7, the award-winning champion fighter teaches and competes for Chip Wright Champion Karate, where she began as a young student some two decades ago. Growing in her karate training since childhood, Dawson began to let it slide once she reached adulthood and found herself tackling college and other endeavors.
"A few years ago, I kind of got away from working out and from karate for the first time, and I knew I had to get back," she says.
After trying a number of popular workouts and exercise programs, such as P90X and CrossFit, Dawson got the idea to create a workout program combining various types of games and drills she'd used as a karate instructor. Taking over the downstairs of the dojo, which once served as a separate gym, Dawson opened her own workouts to two dozen women, ranging in age from 16 to 75.
"I felt really inspired as I started getting back into shape, and the wheels started turning," she says.
"I thought about how there had been cardio-kickboxing classes before and about how connected all the things we did in karate class was to the workouts I was doing," she says. "I thought, 'Hey, we should have a class like that.'
"At first we were doing P90X videos with like 10 or 15 people, then we added different games and races, and it was really fun. More and more people started showing up, and it made me think, 'Man, there's really a market for this stuff.' "
Ultimately, the videos were phased out, and Dawson created her own combination of running, jumping, kicking, punching and games involving medicine balls, drills and routines.
With the average student age hovering around 40, the class seems to garner a lot of regular participants.
Medford resident Holly Spitz, 45, was watching her daughter during karate class when Dawson invited her to try the new class three years ago. Having never attended a fitness class before, and feeling her weight was not what she wanted it to be, Spitz reasoned that she was "just sitting there anyway."
Three years later, she's referred friends to the class and slimmed from a size 10/12 to a 6/8.
"Each day is a new challenge — literally," says Spitz. "Shantell must dream this stuff up because you never know what she will have you do; it's never boring.
"Truthfully, some days are harder to get to class than others, but when the class is over, the feeling of accomplishment is worth the sweat and results," she adds. "I have recommended this class to everyone I see."
Spitz cites Dawson's personable approach for motivating students to stick with the class.
"She brings spirit, energy and motivation to each class with a healthy sense of humor. I love this class, and Shantell is the main reason," she says. "I don't think I would have lasted this long if I didn't have her to inspire me to keep going. I'll be 46 in a couple of months, and there are days I feel my age, but Shantell has added years to my life because I am healthier now than I was in my 30s."
Medford resident Kathy Backes, who learned of the class through Spitz, started shortly after her friend and says she's never felt so fit.
"Everyone talked about how fun Shantell made the class, and yet when you were done, you knew you had a great workout," says Backes, 49.
"There's such a variety of people — and people of all ages — and you work out at your own pace."
Another longtimer, Medford resident Jennifer Britton, says Dawson couldn't be more suited to motivate students who, in many cases, sent their children for the same inspiration in Dawson's karate classes.
"I will have taken the class for four years this January," says Britton. "I couldn't do a regular pushup when I started, but can now do regular military pushups, nose to the floor, 30 to 40 of them."
While Dawson says she's lucky to have "a great group of students," Britton and others credit the teacher for her motivation and expertise to find a good workout program and help people continue coming back for more.
For her part, Dawson says she was just doing what she loved doing.
Having had to work her way back to her current fitness level, she says, gives her some sympathy with students who might struggle.
"I just really love karate, and I love fitness, and it feels good to be helping people in this way," she says. "It's a really great class, and it means a lot that I have so many students who have stuck with it for so long."