Therapeutic Benefits of Martial Arts Training in Aging

I’m intrigued by a YouTube channel that occasionally features 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 who just go 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 the young to the very old.

This aligns 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 exercise, how not to get hit

The idea that martial arts can be an important daily health activity has been known and scientifically researched for some time. In her 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, along with Genwa Nakasone, shared a very early Japanese study of the physical demands of martial arts.

In the book, researcher Oka had people practice karate for about an hour, during which many repetitions of kata were practiced, including one found in many systems called Pinan Nidan.

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 provided a suitable way to exercise to maintain good health throughout life.

Many years later, at the beginning of my scientific career in 1994, my first paper appeared, dealing with the cardiovascular requirements (heart rate, oxygen consumption, blood lactate) of karate kata. We concluded that karate forms could be used for movement training, but were unaware of this much earlier study. We have campaigned for kata training to be stimulated as the preferred stimulus for “cardio training” in karate, rather than running training, which is still quite common.

Beyond the benefits of exercise and towards combat therapy

Now, at other ends of my career, I have a strong interest in the therapeutic benefits of martial arts in aging and chronic conditions (like post-stroke, Parkinson’s and beyond). With this in mind, a few colleagues, Hajer Mustafa, Aimee Harrison, Yao Sun, Greg Pearcey, Bruno Follmer, Ben Nazaroff, Ryan Rhodes, and I decided to do a martial arts intervention in older adults to see if brief exposure to training could help balance, neuromuscular function and overall capacity.

We have developed a modified syllabus based on the Yuishinkai Karate system which I study and teach. We wanted it to be a test of whether older people could derive useful benefit from a dose of training like they would find in a community martial arts program, with some minor modifications based on progressive balance challenges but taught exactly as it would be done every group in every church.

Research participants, ages 59-90, exercised in 60-minute sessions three times a week for five weeks (with pre- and post-exercise ratings). The full-body movement embodied in karate training improved neuromuscular function and postural control. Dynamic balance and strength in particular have been improved, which should help with real-life posture and recovery.

Meaningful activities can improve function and stimulate the mind

Our work emphasizes that when appropriately adapted, karate training taught in a real-world manner can impact health outcomes in older adults. However, the most important result of this study for me is that more than half of the participants wanted to continue training after the study was completed!

I suppose I should have seen this coming as the purpose of using an intervention like martial arts was to have a more meaningful practice that would provide a more engaging context and could impact other aspects of their lives. As a result, I taught a class focused on older adults once a week.

We don’t have to be in a martial arts park in Beijing to appreciate the grace, beauty, power, strength and health benefits of a lifetime of martial arts practice. In fact, we continue to train outside in a parking lot on Vancouver Island. Regardless of location, martial arts are meaningful activities that have clear therapeutic benefits and should be strongly considered as activities for healthy aging.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2022)

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