Holistic Fitness Through Martial Arts

March 18, 2014 Updated: March 18, 2014

Western films, novels, and popular culture are rife with images of martial prowess bringing mass destruction to enemies, but there is another aspect of the “war arts,” that many forget.

Practiced for thousands of years, martial arts includes holistic training that establishes, maintains, and restores health, which makes martial arts a well-rounded fitness approach for the modern working warrior.

Martial arts movements have countless parallels with the movements of our daily lives. Think of the reflexes the ninja needs to dodge a swift punch and the reflexes you need to grab the tilting flower vase before the cat knocks it over. Or consider how the quick draw and precisely aimed strike of the samurai sword is like the fast draw and swipe of your metro card as you rush for the soon-departing train.

Refined since antiquity, martial arts training encompasses all aspects of human life. It helps practitioners prevent injury and prolong life by reinforcing situational awareness and honing body and mind, so we can overcome physical and mental adversities that might otherwise bring us down.

Grounding: The Basics

The basis of training in martial arts fighting is to teach students how to receive, issue, and deflect physical forces like kicks and punches. In basic training, students learn how to stand, and as in the case of judo, how to fall correctly.

Martial artists view the body as a platform that can push, pull, rotate, and shift through space and against forces. Learning the correct way to position the body as it moves through and encounters resistance is necessary for all beginning students.

In most martial arts forms, students learn to keep the knees slightly bent and bodyweight balanced or intentionally placed on the feet in order to remain connected to the earth.

Since martial arts training strengthens the whole body from core to limbs, quite a few techniques, like Pilates and Feldenkrais, have roots in the martial arts. Classical Chinese dance is also based on martial arts principles, sharing the same roots as Chinese kung fu.

Everyday Benefits

Much of the value of martial arts training comes not from defeating a ninja attack in the parking lot, but from its impact on our daily movements. The kitchen becomes our training ground as we stand relaxed but alert as we cook or wash the dishes. Raking up leaves or shoveling snow become enjoyable tasks when we extend and contract our arms while remaining strong in our core.

Another reason why the body coordination developed in martial arts is important for our long-term health maintenance is its effect on our repetitive movement patterns. When we push and pull objects like car and house doors and carry loads like gallons of milk and orange juice, they push back and pull down on our skeleton with potentially destructive force.

The proper posture and alignment developed during martial arts training allow us to naturally distribute the forces encountered in our daily tasks to areas of the body that can withstand the load time after time—that is, closing the door without overextending and keeping our shoulders and back straight while carrying heavy loads.

Improper repetition of any action over time, especially if there is great force involved, may destroy elements of the musculoskeletal system. Think about how many doors you will open in a lifetime. Exactly as in lifting weights at the gym, if you are doing these actions with improper alignment, the greater the resistance the tasks give your body, the greater the potential for injury.

Properly aligning and grounding our bodies in our daily lives has tremendous benefits to our health and well-being. It can negate potential strain and allow us to move and even sit for longer periods without as much wear and tear on our bodies.

Supplementing the physical alignment, the mindfulness developed through martial arts training tends to stay with us after the training. We learn to pay attention to the way we move and to what moves in our environment. Since most serious accidents occur in the home, this can be a lifesaver.

Strengthening Bones, Tendons, Muscles

The ability to withstand and return blows is crucial to martial prowess, and surprisingly, the methods for giving and deflecting punches and kicks have a therapeutic application as well, helping to strengthen our bones, tendons, and muscles.

Bones as well as muscles and tendons must be strong, and many martial arts instructors stress proper body alignment to ensure that when students move at high speed and encounter strong force, their bodies are protected even when the movement happens spontaneously.

The benefits of strengthening bones and connective tissue include preventing or reversing the effects of conditions that weaken them.

Emory M. Moore Jr., CPT, has been a fitness professional for over 25 years.

Martial Arts photo from www.gettyimages.com