Mental Benefits of Martial Arts
As we’ve discussed in previous articles, there’s an enormous (and growing) body of evidence that tells us physical activity is a great way to preserve and optimize mental power. Today, we’ll take a closer look at a sport famed for its intense, fast-paced duels—martial arts.
First, a little trivia. Combat sports date back to 2000-3000 B.C., and while they’re typically associated with the far East (Japanese Karate, Korean Taekwondo, and Muay Thai), the term ‘martial’ actually means ‘arts of Mars’—named for the Roman God of war. Today, martial arts are a global sports, from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to Israeli Krav Maga and Russian Sambo.
It comes as no surprise that martial arts have the power to change your brain. Methodical, purposeful movements are great for forging a better mind-body connection. Take Karate masters for example—they’re able to generate a force in their punches that belies their often small or aged stature. But how?
Surprisingly, raw muscular strength doesn’t fully account for their powerful punches. A study that scanned the brains of black belt karate practitioners with an average of 14 years of experience found differences in the microstructure and connections of their brains compared to participants who were seasoned physical fitness junkies but did not practice martial arts(1).
These mental and brain differences allowed the martial arts masters to synchronize the movement of their wrists and shoulders, giving them the ability to punch as hard as they did. Interestingly, changes in the brain depended on the age that a person started picking up the arts, as well as their total experience in the discipline.
Concentration is crucial in combat sports, and its a fundamental requirement for effectively anticipating and intercepting attacks while planning counter-moves. Repeated practice invariably hones and sharpens your instincts. In everyday life, this has been shown to translate to better ability to pay attention.
In fact, studies found that healthy adults with at least 2 years of martial arts training performed better in the attentional network test—an activity designed to evaluate all 3 dimensions of attention (responding to alerts, orienting towards the sensory stimulation, and executive control of attention), compared to adults who just exercised regularly(2).
Mental benefits of martial arts are more profound for those starting at a younger age
Other studies on children (with an average age of 9) found that those who practiced karate for about 3 to 4 hours a week for the last 3 to 5 years were physically faster, more coordinated, and scored higher in assessments on working memory (also known as short term memory), visual spatial attention (the ability to locate something of interest in space) and executive function (higher motor skills needed to think and plan)(3). Researchers propose that this may be due to the engaging, sophisticated, and complex moves demanded in karate practice that trains the prefrontal neural network (an area of the brain responsible for executive functioning) to function more efficiently.
This disciplined approach also applies to behavior regulation. In martial arts, control is vital, dictating when to attack an opportunity and when to hold back and wait for a better one. This may confer better mental, emotional and social self-regulation—a hypothesis observed by research that observed the behavior of children (kindergarten through 5th grade) who grew up practicing Taekwondo(4).
Martial arts require controlled aggression, but counter-intuitive as it may be, they may reduce physical and verbal hostility and aggression. An interesting study that implemented a traditional martial arts-based intervention as part of its anti-bullying campaign found that it was successful in lowering the overall frequency of aggression in schools, while promoting the likelihood of bystanders helping victims of bullying. This effect may be partially brought about by the emphasis of empathy, a central tenet in the teaching of traditional martial arts(5).
Lastly, martial arts can have a significant positive impact on mental health by reducing stress levels and alleviating depressed moods. In fact, a study implementing a karate training program in elderly people (between 67 and 93) found it bolstered their feeling of self-worth and lowered depression scores. What’s more, those results were after a mere 16 hours of training.(6)
There’s no question that martial arts could help improve your life, physically and mentally. Of course, safety first. Ensure you’re learning from an expert in a safe environment. After that, focus, work hard, and reap the endless benefits of an art form that’s been around for millennia.
1. Roberts RE, Bain PG, Day BL, Husain M. Individual Differences in Expert Motor Coordination Associated with White Matter Microstructure in the Cerebellum. Cerebral Cortex. 2013;23(10):2282-92.
2. Johnstone A, Marí-Beffa P. The Effects of Martial Arts Training on Attentional Networks in Typical Adults. Frontiers in Psychology. 2018;9(80).
3. Alesi M, Bianco A, Padulo J, Vella FP, Petrucci M, Paoli A, et al. Motor and cognitive development: the role of karate. Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons Journal. 2014;4(2):114-20.
4. Lakes KD, Hoyt WT. Promoting self-regulation through school-based martial arts training. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 2004;25(3):283-302.
5. W. TS, K. BB, D. NT, M. VE, Peter F, W. TS. Effects of participation in a martial arts–based antibullying program in elementary schools. Psychology in the Schools. 2008;45(10):947-59.
6. Jansen P, Dahmen-Zimmer K. Effects of Cognitive, Motor, and Karate Training on Cognitive Functioning and Emotional Well-Being of Elderly People. Frontiers in Psychology. 2012;3(40).