A common conception about martial arts practice is that it’s all about learning how to fight. Subduing your opponent. Forcing them to surrender in the fewest amount of moves.
Martial arts practice isn’t strictly about fighting though. It isn’t even just about the physical sport.
For many people, martial arts practice is a lifestyle. A mindset. In many ways, martial arts culture embodies a philosophy.
Martial arts have been glamorized in pop culture and media in Kung Fu movies like Enter the Dragon, TV shows like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, and the UFC mixed martial arts (MMA) circuit.
This glamorization has helped to popularize martial arts practice in Western countries, but it's also helped fuel controversies behind it. A mistaken belief held by many parents is that martial arts practice encourages aggressive or problematic behavior in children.
Movies and popularly held beliefs are one thing, but objective fact is another. The only way to verifiably distinguish between the two is with research - rigorous study rooted in the scientific method.
We’ll review the documented research on the physical and mental health benefits of martial arts, and weigh out the advantages and disadvantages of martial arts practice.
Physical Health Benefits of Martial Arts
Martial arts are often put into two groups: there are non-combat martial arts such as Tai Chi which focus on precise movement and balance, and combat martial arts such as Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, Kung Fu, Judo and Karate, which focus more on kicking, striking and/or grappling used in hand-to-hand combat.
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, only one in five adults get the recommended amount of physical activity needed to maintain healthy, active lifestyles. Martial arts is a good way to get your exercise in.
Benefits of Martial Arts as Aerobic Exercise
There are many studies proving the benefits of aerobic activity in maintaining your physical health. Turns out, martial arts counts as intensive aerobic activity.
The Compendium of Physical Activities indicates that martial arts practice burns about 720 calories per hour for someone weighing 154 pounds. That’s more than basketball, swimming, football or rugby.
The health benefits of martial arts practice include:
When we start to take a more granular view, the results really become interesting. For example, what are the benefits of martial arts for the health of older adults?
A study done in 2014 assessed the effects of hard martial arts of people over 40 in areas such as balance, flexibility, strength, and cardiorespiratory function.
The subjects, who practiced taekwondo or karate, showed improved balance - marked by an ability to stand on one leg for an extended period of time - and improved reaction time. The study concluded that older adults who practice martial arts show improved balance and postural control, as well as positive impacts on psychological health.
Martial Arts for Disabled People
It isn’t just for able-bodied people either - martial arts practice can benefit people with disabilities.
In 2002, a Master's Thesis from the University of Wisconsin sought to answer the question: does martial arts practice reduce functional limitations caused by a physical disability?
The survey included participants ages 15-54 from martial arts schools which included people with disabilities. Of those, the largest portion of respondents had a physical disability (60%), followed by cognitive and sensory disabilities.
In the majority of cases, the respondents indicated that their martial arts training helped them develop improved physical functionality. Practicing martial arts helped them to overcome their disabilities.
Health Benefits of Kung Fu
In 2008, a joint study led by researchers from Australia and Boston looked at the health benefits of Kung Fu. They concluded that Kung Fu qualifies as moderate to high-intensive aerobic exercise, and that Kung Fu practitioners display greater isokinetic strength compared to sedentary control groups.
The benefits of Kung Fu practice included:
- Increased muscle strength
- Higher strength and bone mineral density
- Lower body fat in females
- Blunting of acute stress
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Mental Health Benefits of Martial Arts
So it seems as though martial arts practice is good for your body. What does it do for your mind?
Does combat training make you more aggressive, or give you an increased propensity towards violent behavior? Does studying karate turn people into bullies and thugs like Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid?
After all, according to the Law of the Instrument: to someone with a hammer, the whole world is a nail. Maybe knowing how to fight makes you want to do it more.
Turns out, the opposite is true in this case. A body of research has shown a correlation between martial arts practice and a decrease in aggressive behavior, criminal activity, and increase in emotional wellbeing.
The reason for this is because martial arts culture is rooted in Eastern spiritual practices such as Buddhism that teach the importance of mindfulness: the art of living in the moment and being aware of your surroundings.
In this way, martial arts practice cultivates spiritual and mental wellbeing as well as physical wellbeing.
Once again, there is a growing body of scientific evidence to corroborate this.
Martial Arts Leads to a Decrease in Aggression
In 2016, a joint-study was done by researchers in Israel and at UCLA that looked at the relationship between martial arts and anger, violence and aggression in 507 children ages six to 18.
The results were fascinating. Contrary to many popular preconceptions, martial arts were found to reduce violent behavior, rule breaking, and impulsive behaviors associated with criminal activity.
Let’s look at another example. A 2017 study by Italian researchers compared 76 martial arts students with 70 people in a sedentary control group.
The students were found to have better performance in tests for attention and creativity. They also reported a higher self-esteem and self-efficacy. What’s more, they found a decrease in aggressiveness. The researchers concluded that regular martial arts practice leads to many positive effects involving personality and cognitive factors.
Martial Arts Empowers Women
Martial arts like karate are often thought of as a male-dominated sport. However, martial arts practice has been found to be empowering for women.
Martial arts cultivates a sense of self-confidence and self-respect that counteract predominant social norms that teach women to be submissive, compliant, and to obey rules and customs enforced by men.
When women study martial arts they can become physically and mentally stronger, which helps them to overcome the problems and challenges they face during the day.
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The Effects of Taekwondo Practice on ADHD
In 2019 a study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that investigated the effects of taekwondo practice on teenagers with ADHD.
40 teenagers were randomly assigned to a group for white belt taekwondo practice and a control group. Over the course of two years, the teenagers in the taekwondo group outperformed the control group on cognitive function tests.
We can extrapolate from the study that martial arts helps people with ADHD concentrate and increase self-awareness.
Martial Arts Improves Your Emotional Health
Consider first of all that people who suffer from mental illnesses like depression can benefit from physical exercise - such as studying and practicing martial arts.
The physical, aerobic activity and mindfulness cultivation found in martial arts practice can help people to be calmer and more in control of their emotions.
Elderly adults were found to have the same benefits from martial arts practice. In 2012, a study by German scientists evaluated the cognitive functions and emotional well-being of elderly people who practiced Karate.
The study looked at 60 participants between the ages of 67 and 93. Six of the subjects were diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and two from dementia. 14 of the subjects received Karate training over a period of 3-6 months.
The tests showed that while there wasn’t a significant improvement in cognitive function, the elderly adults who received Karate training showed a significant improvement in their emotional state. They were happier, more well-adjusted people after studying martial arts.
Disadvantages of Martial Arts
So far so good. Martial arts is beneficial for your physical health in multiple ways, has the potential to help disabled people overcome their limitations, reduces aggression in teenagers, and helps elderly people be more at peace with themselves.
But is it dangerous? Well, not necessarily, but it can be.
Some martial arts are a contact sport and as such carries with it certain risks. Boxers in particular are at an increased risk of head trauma.
Once again however, the research runs counter to prevalent biases and expectations. A 2017 study on the health benefits of hard martial arts showed that they have a lower rate of injuries compared to other sports.
However, the risk of injury is still there. Mixed-martial arts (MMA) in particular has the highest incidence of injury of any combat sport. The injury pattern in MMA is similar to boxing: 68-78% of sustained injuries occur in the head.
In the MMA circuit, the outcome of bouts is the highest risk factor. Losers incur three times as many injuries as winners.
Another interesting thing to note is that lower belt ranks (white belt, etc.) sustain two times more injuries on average when compared to higher belt ranks. Professional fighters also have significantly more injuries than amateur fighters.
So what’s the takeaway here? Are martial arts too dangerous for beginners to be worth the potential benefits?
No, not at all! But as with any sport, the best way to mitigate the risks is to protect yourself by using appropriate protective gear and equipment.
The use of head guards, foot pads, and elbow pads will help protect you from fractures, sprains, and other injuries so you can practice martial arts in a safe and controlled manner. Make sure that they fit snuggly and are worn properly or they won’t be as effective.
You can also reduce your risk of injury by using martial arts as a compliment to other forms of exercise such as resistance training.
Summing Up The Benefits of Martial Arts
There are numerous health benefits to practicing martial arts, both physical and mental, that have been proven by scientific research and review. They strengthen the body and sharpen the mind.
The available scientific literature has shown that martial arts practice:
- Is intensive aerobic exercise that improves cardiovascular fitness, skeletal bone density and muscle strength
- Improves coordination and balance
- Can help disabled people overcome their physical limitations
Martial arts practice also has numerous benefits for your mental health. Studies from the last 10 years have shown that it:
- Reduces aggression and problematic behavior in teens and young adults
- Improves cognitive function and emotional state of elderly adults
- Empowers and builds confidence in women
- Helps treat ADHD symptoms in teens with ADHD
Interested in starting martial arts training? Read this guide on Martial Arts Training for Beginners.