Kurt Frankenberg is a walking, talking testimonial to healthy aging. On July 12, 2016 he suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak clearly. A few weeks ago, this stroke survivor gratefully welcomed his 50th birthday by doing 101 push-ups.
Frankenberg is a lifelong martial artist, serial entrepreneur and owner of the Freedom School of Martial Arts in Monument, Colorado. And today, “Chief” – as his students address him – gives thanks to God, his family, friends and the students who were with him the day he collapsed in the dojo.
By the Grace of God
“God was there with me,” Frankenberg says. As he stumbled, collapsed and tried to stand up over and over again, his speech became progressively slurred and inaccessible. “Whatever portion of my brain should have been registering abject terror, just shut down,” Frankenberg recalls.
“I remember being completely amused and wondering what the hell was going on,” he says. As his students quickly dialed 911, Frankenberg was finally able to utter one word that was crystal clear: shit. “For some reason, that word was hard-wired,” he laughs. “And I remember I had this overwhelming sense of thankfulness covering me.”
That could have been because the stroke could not have happened at a better time and place. “If it had been two hours earlier or one hour later, I would have been alone for the next 48 hours.” His wife, Sabrina, was traveling out of state at the time.
“If you’re going to have a stroke, being right there in the midst of people who are capable and care for you and can get you to the hospital quickly couldn’t have been more ideal,” Frankberg says. “Right down the street from my studio is a fire station. The paramedics took me to one of the premier facilities for strokes and heart attacks in the area. My nurses were angels.”
And emergency doctors knew exactly what to do. An injection of Alteplase, a mainstay medical treatment for an acute ischemic stroke, had him on the course for a full recovery. Months of physical therapy and speech therapy have returned his physical strength and speech. There are still days, when Frankenberg has trouble remembering a word or two that he hasn’t used in a while. Thankfully, those days are becoming the anomaly instead of the norm.
Lessons From the Dojo
Frankenberg found his passion for martial arts in the mid-1970s as a teenage boy growing up in a military family. As is the life for most military kids, the U.S. Air Force led the family from assignment to assignment and a life of continuous adjustments in new cities.
“I got beat up and was bullied a lot,” he says. “I was a military brat who was small for his age, early for his grade, and had a sharp tongue.” Martial arts became a safe haven. It also was the place where discipline and athletics came together to shape a young man’s future.
Frankenberg opened his first martial arts studio fresh out of high school in 1985 and has never looked back. He teaches Kajukenbo, an amalgam of karate jiu jitsu, kung fu and boxing. “We were teaching mixed martial arts before MMA was cool,” he chuckles.
Over more than three decades, Frankenberg has taught generations of students the skills and discipline of the sport. But he also hopes he has instilled a strong sense of confidence and real-life self-defense tactics that his students will carry with them forever.
Paying the Price
As Frankenberg reflects on his lifelong commitment to martial arts and the connections he shares with his students, his family and his own children, a softer side emerges.
“I’m a 30-year, veteran martial arts instructor, and I thought I was indestructible,” he starts. “If my wife came home with a bag of cookies, I thought I could eat them all. I have two other businesses, and I was a workaholic.” Frankenberg also owns a mobile screen repair company and an online company that teaches local business owners how to market their small businesses effectively.
From waking at 5 a.m. and turning in at midnight to a physically demanding career and poor nutrition habits, Frankenberg burned the candle at both ends for a lot of years.
The stroke became his wake-up call. “It’s one think to believe in yourself and believe in your God and your principles. But it’s another thing to realize there are natural laws you can’t violate,” Frankenberg says.
“You can’t subsist on sugar and really unhealthy habits. You can’t burn the candle at both ends and pretend everything is fine on the surface. You’re still going to pay a price. And I promise the bill will come. That was the first lesson I learned from the stroke. I’m not indestructible.”
These days, Frankenberg and his wife take a bit more time to relax, travel and unwind. While he still runs three businesses, he knows the value of taking time off to reset and recharge body and mind. The stroke recovery process has taught him patience and to loosen up a bit. “I will always do martial arts,” he says. “But I don’t’ know if I’ll be the driving force at my studio forever. I’d like to see others take the reins.”
Make Healthy Aging a Habit
As a lifelong athlete, the habit of physical fitness is so deeply ingrained in Frankenberg that even a stroke could not steal that desire. “Martial arts training brings mental acuity and physical fitness, and with the stroke, I lost a lot of my fitness and mental endurance. The ability to stay on task for extended periods of time was greatly affected,” he says.
So as soon as he is given the go-ahead from doctors, his priority is to regain what he lost. “I made it my business to get back to doing 100 consecutive pushups. I got there and did 101 on my 50th birthday,” he grins. “And I feel more fit now than I did two years ago.”
His best healthy aging advice to anyone is to keep the body moving. “Do something every day. Get outside and breathe. Or get inside and breathe. It doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s not about quantity; it’s about frequency to create the habit.”
He cautions those just starting out a fitness journey to take it slowly and gradually progress to longer in the gym, or just a bit farther on the walks or runs. “If you say, ‘By golly I’m going to get fit and work out for 2 and a half hours,’ you’ll be sore for a week and never go back,” he warns. “Start low level, with great frequency. And every once in awhile, turn up the volume.”