by Cameron Cromwell (Absolutely Martial Arts)
I never really thought about the benefits of martial arts before. Other than it seemed a reasonable way to get some exercise and learn to better defend oneself in an unexpected altercation. Neither had I seriously thought about taking up martial arts for most of my life. No one had tried to beat me up in decades. I swam at the local pool and I ran through the parks from time to time. My fitness was OK.
Then one day I saw an advert for a free kickboxing taster session. I was not interested in it for myself but for my two teenage daughters. They had recently ‘retired’ from gymnastics. Both agreed to give it a try so I signed them up. On a wild whim, thinking of my stubborn belly flab and missing the days when I felt good about myself, I decided to sign up for the taster session as well.
Before I knew it, I was a member of a local martial arts club and enthusiastically training at every opportunity. My training now includes Kickboxing, Grappling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And I have discovered many more benefits than just weight loss. Although that is still a pretty good one.
My enthusiasm for martial arts training and how it has made me feel prompted me to learn more about the real benefits of martial arts. This is the results from my own personal experience and my research.
Benefits for the Body
There is plenty of evidence on the importance of getting adequate physical activity. It improves cardiovascular health, reduces blood pressure, and increases stamina. Physical fitness is a key part of martial arts training. This is a sport with drills that will get your heart rate up. Some of the other benefits include:
Getting your heart rate up through physical activity is a great way to speed up your metabolism and start shedding excess pounds. The more you train the more calories you will burn and guess what? You become a trimmer version of yourself.
Better Muscle Tone
Martial Arts involves punching, kicking, grappling or some form of physical exercise that develops the muscles. Your muscles will develop when practising skills. There are often conditioning sessions aimed at strengthen muscles. Both provide a full body workout. And everyone looks better with good muscle tone!
With physical exercise to develop muscle tone comes increased strength. We all like the idea of being stronger. It’s in our nature and there is good reason for it. Extra muscle mass increases bone density, which is particularly important as you age. It enables us to bend over and lift heavier objects, to walk up stairs with greater ease. We are better able to do everyday things with less risk of injury. Those stubborn jam jar lids won’t stand a chance!
It might sound like a strange thing to hear that tiring yourself out at a martial arts training sessions will increase your greater energy levels. But hear me out before you judge. We need to continuously metabolise oxygen to live, and the more efficiently we can do this the better we feel. Increased cardiovascular and strength training will improve your circulation and increase your body’s ability to carry oxygen.
A by-product of exercise is the release of stress hormones that in modest amounts can make us feel energized. And in my experience there is nothing like a good workout session to ensure a satisfying night’s sleep and feel energised the next day.
Core stability is important for staying healthy and injury free in everyday life. Some of my past injuries were a result of underdeveloped core stability compared to my muscle strength. Traditionally, we considered the more prominent muscles like the biceps, triceps, shoulders, chest, leg muscles to be what made us strong.
Fortunately we now know the importance of developing abdominal muscles, back muscles and muscles surrounding the pelvis. Techniques taught in martial arts to move, block, defend, counter and attack need coordination, balance and stability. This strengthens the core muscles that are responsible for initiating muscle movement as well as stabilising muscle movement. Contact (with another person) is not necessary, so anyone can participate and benefit. There is evidence that this helps us to avoid falls and injuries from falls as we get older.
For most of us, modern life has made us much more sedentary than our ancestors. As a result we become less flexible and agile over time. Martial arts is a great way to overcome this because the moves taught need flexibility. There is emphasis on stretching to maximise movement and in time your flexibility will improve.
After every training session, without fail, we are reminded to stretch out before leaving. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that reminder… But I appreciate it. We are taught to stretch correctly and I find it relaxing.
It is important that we work on our flexibility as much as core stability and strength. Flexible muscles are ‘looser’ muscles with less tension. This makes us better at taking physical stress without injury. We also suffer less with aches and pains.
Flexible muscles have better blood circulation and this offers its own medical benefits. If you suffer with muscle cramps you may have muscles that are not flexible enough. Flexible muscles even make you more comfortable when sitting or standing in different positions. They will even help to improve your posture.
There is another drawback to a more sedentary life. We lose our ability to quickly and efficiently react to the need to change direction and the position of our body with a measure of control and gracefulness. Most martial arts improve agility by teaching you to react with repetitive bursts of energy.
Martial arts place a significant emphasis on the relationship between mind and body. In martial arts the mind and body learn to work together efficiently. This improves cognitive function. It is important for balance and coordination. It also helps us avoid injury.
Becoming an athlete
The human body is complex. Yet martial arts train the whole body, embracing its complexities as ‘art’. You will develop a body that you can feel good about. It does not matter whether you are someone that has always enjoyed sports and exercise or not. You can be confident that martial arts will enhance your physical abilities. You will become more athletic.
Benefits for the Mind
Stress is a natural consequence of life. We cannot completely eliminate it nor should we. But when stress is more than we can manage it can affect the quality of our lives, physically and mentally. Martial arts may not be the answer to all the things that cause stress in your life, but it can help you to cope better. You learn to focus your mental and physical energy in a positive direction.
Whether physically exerting yourself, working on precision of movements, or striking a punching bag you will be in the ‘here and now’. You learn to control your breathing and to clear your mind of distractions. Sometimes referred to as a ‘stillness’. This is something that you can be useful at school, work or throughout your daily life. It is often the paradox that the more people get stressed the more they believe they do not have the time or energy to exercise, thereby moving further away from calmness.
I have had personal experience of this off and on in my career. But when I do make the time to exercise I can manage stress in my life better. It may not eliminate all my stress, but it definitely helps me discern between what is important and what is not. Of course the release of endorphins to provide a natural ‘runners high’ is no bad thing either.
If you are stressed and find you suffer with headaches, tense muscles, neck and back pains then exercise will help. The advantage of martial arts is the practice of focusing your energy through both mind and body.
Learn to Relax
Relaxation has many known mental and physical benefits. One of the first things taught in martial arts is to slow down and ‘relax’. Of course this is much easier said than done. It is fair to say that learning to relax is a journey in itself, and it’s one without a destination as the saying goes.
With martial arts you learn to be more effective by relaxing. Even with high impact disciplines like Boxing, Kickboxing, Judo and Jiu Jitsu. Learning to control stress and then to relax helps with performance. So does practising relaxation techniques for the mind.
My club has ‘Relax’ sessions twice a week after training sessions. We meditate with the help of a voice from Headspace. The mats come out, the lights get dimmed, and yes, there is incense sourced direct from India by one of the students. I really enjoy the sessions. But to be truthful it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And some of us have to work at it more than others.
Like many things in life, it gets easier with practice. Martial arts can help you to get better at relaxing and to enjoy the benefits of being more relaxed.
Greater Self Respect
It can sometimes feel as if self respect is hard won and easily lost. Life regularly throws us curve balls that challenge our ability to feel good about ourselves and to show it. Trying to find the key to self respect can be as complex as finding the key to happiness. Yet, there are some some common contributors to self respect that most of us would relate with. Martial arts ticks off more than a few of these:
Learning self-defence and knowing you are more agile and capable goes a long way toward self confidence. The truth is that the world can be scary sometimes. Self confidence is important in many aspects of our lives. The mental toughness that comes from practising martial arts encourages a self belief. You become more confident that you can handle unexpected or challenging situations. You may even find you are able to take on new challenges in your life. This self confidence can make you walk a little taller and appear calmer and self assured.
Any progress that you make will be down to you and your commitment to learning martial arts. Yes, the training can be rigorous and demanding. There will be days when things seem very difficult or even frustrating. You will need to accept direction and regular correction. Sometimes you will even need to be humble. You will be expected to show respect to the person instructing you and also to those training alongside you. You will need to conform to the established structure of your training. It is all down to you. No one else can do it for you.
Sense of Accomplishment
Everyone I know that practices martial arts does it for enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment. The colored belt system is a great way to recognize achievements. You will most likely discover more about yourself and what you are capable of. There will be days when you do something for the first time. There will be days when something you have been struggling with comes together for the first time. Your determination will have paid off and the sense of accomplishment is your reward. You deserve to feel good.
Learning martial arts encourages you to concentrate and stay focused. Your state of mind becomes more disciplined.. There are studies showing that cognitive abilities improve with martial arts training. This particularly benefits us as we get older. Exercise on its own will help your brain with such things as memory. But martial arts requires body and mind to work together, improving concentration.
Improve Overall Mood
Any type of sustained exertion will release endorphins into your body. This makes you feel good and it can last several hours. Regular exercise and the release of endorphins can help to sustain a better mood. The mental focus and meditation of martial arts is also helpful for your mood.
There are other ways that you feel good. For example, seeing your improved posture and body in the mirror can have a lifting affect. Older adults that trained in karate have shown lower levels of depression. Like everyone, I have my share of ups and downs. Training with the friends that I have made helps me to keep a more positive attitude during these times.
Physical Benefits + Mental Benefits = Wellbeing
We need a healthy body and a healthy mind to enjoy a feeling of wellbeing (or wellness as it is sometimes called). Learning martial arts is not a guarantee of a blissful life ever after. Yet the benefits of caring for your mind and body together do make a difference. They are deeply interconnected. One cannot be completely isolated from the other.
Think of your body and mind as one. If you have any doubts then think think of a time you were feeling high levels of stress at school, at work or in your personal life. Were the symptoms of this stress confined to what was going on in your head? Were they physical only? My guess is that it affected you mentally. You might have experienced a drop in self-confidence, feelings of diminished self-worth, bad moods, or difficulty making rational decisions. At the same time your body was probably affected. You might have experienced tension in your shoulders or back, suffered headaches, stomach or bowel problems. If so, your mind and body were in league with each other.
Trouble sleeping? You are less likely to improve your sleep by solely by addressing your body’s needs without considering your mind’s need and vice versa.
The good news is that by focusing on your mind and body you can create an upward spiral. The important thing is to recognise the close relationship and do something about it. A balanced approach to improving body and mind as one will give you the best chance of improving your wellbeing.
These days even the gyms are recognising the importance of improving the mind as well as the body. It is becoming one of the biggest trends in the fitness industry and there is a lot of rebranding going on to capitalise on this. It is really good that this is happening. Yet the importance of a healthy mind-body relationship has been the essence of martial arts for a very long time. Long before the first gym was ever built students of martial arts were learning that improving one helped to improve the other. And it remains just as important today .
A great way to improve your wellbeing is to do things that are fun. Exercising your body and mind is much easier when you are enjoying yourself. Sometimes it’s the endorphins. Sometimes it is simply learning something new or doing something well. Sometimes is is helping less experienced students. Even when things don’t go so well you still showed up and you worked at and it feels good. Even better that you are doing it with other people on the same journey and sharing the same experience.
Martial arts is a great way to make new friends and to develop your social skills. The mind and body improvements can help to improve your relationship with your friends and family. You can even train as a family. My teenage daughters attend kickboxing lessons with me. They exercise, they take instructions and they are respectful. They also giggle a lot. My oldest will be off to university in a few months. Spending this time with them is a real treat for me. Besides, what father doesn’t like the idea of his daughter being a warrior princess?
Martial arts has many benefits and like so much of life you get out of it what you put into it. The one thing that you can count on by taking up martial arts is a holistic approach to making you a better person, to improving your wellbeing, and to helping you to feel better about yourself.
I took up martial arts training solely to lose some belly flab and to feel better about myself. This goal has certainly been reached, but there are other benefits. Many were pleasantly unexpected.
I am still into it, still learning, still working toward new goals, and still feeling better for it.