Therapeutic benefits of martial arts training in aging
I’m fascinated by a YouTube channel that occasionally shows montage videos of everyday people of all ages training in Beijing’s martial arts parks. I’m drawn to it because of the simple, no-nonsense nature of people going to a park to train in martial arts, which is still unusual in North America, and because there’s a range of abilities and skills. ages ranging from young to very old.
This resonates deeply with my experience that martial arts is a lifelong activity for all ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds, regardless of physical ability. Everything is fluid and adaptable.
A History of Health Through Training in How Not to Get Hit
The idea that martial arts can be an important daily health activity has been known for some time and explored scientifically. In their book, An introduction to Karate-do: the unarmed martial art of attack and defense (translated by Mario McKenna), karate master Kenwa Mabuni, founder of Shito-ryu, as well as Genwa Nakasone shared a very old Japanese study on the physical demands of martial arts.
In the book, researcher Oka asked people to do about an hour of karate training during which many repetitions of kata, including one found in many systems called Pinan Nidan, were practiced.
They measured heart rate and blood pressure and analyzed urine samples for exercise-related protein levels. The main point of “Effects of Karate-jutsu on blood pressure and urine”, published in Karate studies magazine in 1934, was that karate training provides an appropriate means of exercising to maintain health throughout life.
Many years later, at the beginning of my scientific career in 1994, my first article was published on the cardiovascular requirements (heart rate, oxygen consumption, blood lactate) of karate kata. We concluded that karate forms could be used for physical training, but we were unaware of this much older study. We lobbied for kata training to be a preferred stimulus for “cardio training” in karate instead of running practice, which remains quite common.
Go beyond the benefits of exercise and into martial therapy
Now, for other purposes in my career, I have a strong interest in the therapeutic benefits of martial arts in aging and chronic disease (such as after stroke, Parkinson’s disease and beyond). In this context, some colleagues, Hajer Mustafa, Aimee Harrison, Yao Sun, Greg Pearcey, Bruno Follmer, Ben Nazaroff, Ryan Rhodes and myself decided to use a martial arts intervention in the elderly to see if a brief exposure to training could help with balance, neuromuscular function, and overall capacity.
We have developed a modified program based on the Yuishinkai karate system that I study and teach. We wanted this to be a test of whether older adults could gain any useful benefit from a “dose” of training as they would in a community martial arts program, with some minor modifications based on training challenges. progressive balance, but taught exactly as it would be done for any group in any community.
Research participants aged 59 to 90 trained three times a week in 60-minute sessions for five weeks (with pre- and post-training assessments). The whole body movement embodied in karate training has improved neuromuscular function and postural control. In particular, dynamic balance and strength have been improved, which should be helpful for posture and recovery in real life.
Meaningful activities can improve function and engage the mind
Our work highlights that, when appropriately adapted, karate training taught in the real world could impact health outcomes in older adults. For me, however, the most important result of this study is that more than half of the participants wanted to continue training after the study ended!
I guess I should have seen that coming since the whole point of using an intervention like martial arts was to have a more meaningful practice that would provide a more engaging context and could affect other aspects of their lives. As a result, I found myself teaching a senior-focused class once a week.
We don’t need to be in a martial arts park in Beijing to appreciate the grace, beauty, power, strength and health benefits of lifelong martial arts practice. In fact, we continue to train outdoors in a parking lot on Vancouver Island. Regardless of location, martial arts are meaningful activities that have clear therapeutic benefits and should be viewed as activities for healthy aging.
(c) E. Paul Zehr (2022)