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Therapeutic Benefits of Martial Arts Training in Aging

Five weeks of adapted karate training improves balance, control, and strength.

Key points

  • Martial arts training can be done across the lifespan and improves health and well-being.
  • Balance and strength improve even after a short period of training.
  • Martial arts are enjoyable activities that have context and meaning and can increase the likelihood of ongoing engagement.

I'm fascinated by a YouTube channel that occasionally shows montage videos of everyday folks of all ages training in the martial arts parks of Beijing. I'm drawn to it because of the simple, matter-of-fact nature of people just going to a park to train in martial arts, which remains unusual in North America, and because there's a range of abilities and ages from young to very old.

This resonates deeply with my experience that martial arts are a lifelong activity for every age, gender, and cultural background, regardless of physical capacity. Everything is fluid and adaptable.

A History of Health by Training in How Not To Be Hit

The idea that martial arts can be an important daily health activity has been known for a while and explored scientifically. In their book, An Introduction to Karate-do: the unarmed martial art of offense and defense (translated by Mario McKenna), the karate master Kenwa Mabuni, founder of Shito-ryu, along with Genwa Nakasone shared a very early Japanese study on the physical demands of martial arts.

In the book, researcher Oka had folks 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 protein levels related to exertion. 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 a suitable way to exercise to maintain health across the lifespan.

Many years later, at the beginning of my scientific career in 1994, my first paper was published looking at the cardiovascular demands (heart rate, oxygen consumption, blood lactate) of karate kata. We concluded that karate forms could be used for exercise training but were unaware of this much earlier study. We lobbied for kata training as a preferred stimulus for "cardio training" in karate in place of running practice, which remains quite common.

Moving Beyond Exercise Benefits and Towards Martial Therapy

Now, at other ends of my career, I have a strong interest in the therapeutic benefit of martial arts in aging and chronic conditions (like after a stroke, Parkinson's, and beyond). With this as a background, some colleagues, Hajer Mustafa, Aimee Harrison, Yao Sun, Greg Pearcey, Bruno Follmer, Ben Nazaroff, Ryan Rhodes, and I decided to use a martial arts intervention in older adults to see whether a brief training exposure could help with balance, neuromuscular function, and overall capacity.

We developed a modified curriculum based on the Yuishinkai karate system I study and teach. We wanted it to be a test of whether older folks could get a useful benefit from a training “dose” like they would find in a community martial arts program, with some minor modifications based on progressive balance challenges but taught exactly as would be done for any group in any community.

Research participants aged 59-90 trained three times per week in 60-minute sessions for five weeks (with pre and post-training assessments). The whole-body movement embodied in karate training enhanced neuromuscular function and postural control. Especially, dynamic balance and strength were enhanced, which should be helpful for posture and recovery in real life.

Meaningful Activities Can Enhance Function and Engage the Mind

Our work emphasizes that, when adapted appropriately, karate training taught in a real-world fashion could impact health outcomes in older adults. For me, though, the most important result from that study is that more than half of the participants wanted to continue training when the study finished!

I suppose I ought to have seen this coming since the purpose of using an intervention like martial arts was to have a more meaningful practice that would provide a more engaging context and might affect other aspects of their lives. As a result, I found myself teaching a class focusing on older adults once per 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 outside in a parking lot on Vancouver Island. Regardless of locale, martial arts are meaningful activities that have clear therapeutic benefits and should be considered strongly as activities for healthy aging.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2022)

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