Five Brain-Boosting Reasons to Take Up Martial Arts—at Any Age

These ancient fighting forms can combat foes ranging from depression to forgetfulness
By Ashleigh Johnstone, Bangor University
May 18, 2018 Updated: May 18, 2018
We are all aware that exercise can improve physical fitness and strength. But what do we know about the effects of specific types of exercise? Researchers have already shown that jogging can increase life expectancy, for example, while yoga makes us happy. However, martial arts go beyond enhancing physical and mental health—they can boost your brain’s cognition, too.

1. Improved Attention

Researchers say that there are two ways to improve attention, through attention training (AT) and attention state training (AST). AT is based on practicing a specific skill and getting better at that skill, but not others—for example, using a brain-training video game. AST, on the other hand, is about getting into a specific state of mind that allows a stronger focus. This can be done by using exercise, meditation, or yoga, among other things.

It has been suggested that martial arts are a form of AST and, supporting this, recent research has shown a link between practice and improved alertness. Backing this idea up further, another study showed that practicing martial arts, specifically karate, is linked to better performance on a divided attention task—an assignment in which the person has to keep two rules in mind and respond to signals based on whether they are auditory or visual.

2. Reduced Aggression

In a U.S. study, children aged 8 to 11 were given traditional martial arts training that focused on respecting other people and defending themselves, as part of an anti-bullying program. The children were also taught how to maintain a level of self-control in heated situations.

The researchers found that the martial arts training reduced the level of aggressive behavior in boys, and found that they were more likely to step in and help someone who was being bullied than they would have before they took part in the training. Significant changes were not found in the girls’ behavior, potentially because they showed much lower levels of physical aggression before the training than the boys did.

Interestingly, this anti-aggression effect is not limited to young children. A different piece of research found reduced physical and verbal aggression, as well as hostility, in adolescents who practiced martial arts, too.

In control. (El Nariz/Shutterstock)

3. Greater Stress Management

Some forms of martial arts, such as tai chi, place great emphasis on controlled breathing and meditation. These were strongly linked in one study with reduced feelings of stress, as well as being better able to manage stress when it is present in young to middle-aged adults.

This effect has also been found in older adults (the 330 participants in this research had a mean age of 73). And the softer, flowing movements make it an ideal, low-impact exercise for older people.

4. Enhanced Emotional Well-being

As several scientists are now looking into the links between emotional well-being and physical health, it’s vital to note that martial arts have been shown to improve a person’s emotional well-being, too.

In the study linked above, 45 older adults (aged 67 to 93) were asked to take part in karate training, cognitive training, or non-martial arts physical training for three to six months. The older adults in the karate training showed lower levels of depression after the training period than both other groups, perhaps due to its meditative aspect. It was also reported that these adults showed a greater level of self-esteem after the training, too.

5. Improved Memory

After comparing a sedentary control group to a group of people doing karate, Italian researchers found that taking part in karate can improve a person’s working memory. They used a test that involved recalling and repeating a series of numbers, both in the correct order and backward, which increased in difficulty until the participant was unable to continue. The karate group was much better at this task than the control group, meaning they could recall longer series of numbers. Another project found similar results while comparing tai chi practice to Western exercises focused on strength, endurance, and resistance training.

Evidently, there is far more to martial arts than traditional roles. Though martial arts have been practiced for self-defense and spiritual development for many hundreds of years, only relatively recently have researchers had the methods to assess the true extent of how these practices affect the brain.

The ConversationThere is such a huge range of martial arts, with some more gentle and meditative, and others more combative and physically intensive, but this only means that there is a type for everyone. So why not give it a go and see how you can boost your own brain using the ancient practices of martial arts.

Ashleigh Johnstone is a doctoral researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University in the UK. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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