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Can You Raise Resilience With a Roundhouse Kick?

Martial arts training has positive effects on the mental health of teenagers.

Key points

  • Traditional martial arts training can be a life-long practice for health and wellness.
  • Martial arts practitioners often report mental health benefits such as increased well-being.
  • Teenagers who train in martial arts have increased feelings of well-being and enhanced psychological resilience.

Historically, and in their places of origin, Asian martial arts have been valued and pursued as life-long activities. This approach has been only marginally based on the aspects of fighting skill that are inherent parts of all training methodologies. In large part, the health benefits of martial arts training figure heavily in their perceived and actual value, yet until recently there's been very little study of specific mental or physical improvements.

Martial arts training and mental health

So, what is the evidence that training in martial arts can improve mental health? Brian Moore, Dean Dudley, and Stuart Woodcock in Australia have a series of answers to this question in their recent paper. The studies they included contained a range of martial arts (e.g., judo, karate, tae kwon do, tai chi, boxing, etc.) across a range of ages from younger than 7 to older than 70 and in settings spanning schools to sports clubs. The overall takeaway from this systematic review is that even brief (5-6 weeks) periods of traditional martial arts training can enhance well-being and improve self-perceived levels of mental health.

Can martial arts improve the well-being of teenagers?

While martial arts training is truly an accessible activity across the lifespan, there are two groups in particular who might most benefit from therapeutic outcomes: young (e.g., teenagers) and older (e.g., seniors) adults. Going beyond their survey of other work, Moore, Woodcock, and Dudley conducted an intervention study worthy of its own Karate Kid/Cobra Kai TV movie. They went right back to school.

Almost 300 students (142 were in the experimental group) from five schools participated in a 10-week intervention of martial arts training on mental health outcomes. These were teenagers aged 12-14 and in grades 7 and 8, and, importantly, there was an almost even split of those identifying as female and male.

The training involved ten approximately one-hour sessions of Tae Kwon Do, delivered once per week by qualified black belt instructors and a registered school psychologist. The sessions themselves included psychological and philosophical discussions about self-esteem and bullying, and included warm-ups, technical skill practice, pattern training, sparring, and meditation. After training, overall resilience, and especially scales related to relationships with primary caregivers were improved. This improvement was larger when compared to a control group. At a 12 week follow-up, positive effects remained but were weaker, suggesting that ongoing training could be of great use.

Both roundhouse kicks and resilience can be learned

The Australian researchers conclude that although it has been suggested that resilience can be learned, there are still very few objective training studies evaluating this. This is especially true for the school setting. They go on to say that such approaches using martial arts might enable the role of school psychologists to "facilitate engagement with clients who might avoid conventional therapy."

Senior author Brian Moore told me that he didn't initially plan on studying the mental health benefits of martial arts but that he, like many parents, got intrigued when his own kids began training in Tae Kwon Do. He said part of his motivation "arose from the popular stereotype about the health benefits of martial arts, however, there was little research examining this." He eventually trained along with his kids and kept at it for about six years, attaining his 2nd-degree black belt. His co-authors also have some martial arts backgrounds in Judo and Aikido.

Moore also told me that his "hope for the martial arts research is to encourage mental health and wellbeing through physical activity, and provide an empirical basis for this."

Objective evidence to empower therapeutic applications of martial arts

Many of the outcomes of the kind of research described here and my other posts on martial arts are not super surprising. Especially in Asia, positive overall health benefits have long been associated with martial arts training. Yet, empirical research studies are critical to provide objective evidence to enable and empower folks to pursue martial arts for outcomes beyond the focus of training. This is especially important for gaining access and leveraging allied health care support. That is, for meaningful therapeutic benefits on mental and physical health using activities, like martial arts, that have truly holistic health benefits.