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The Physical and Psychological Benefits of Martial Arts Training

by Adam Paul Swiercz

  


Introduction

While the specific origin of martial arts remains elusive to historians, it is apparent that they have been around for a very long time. Over the years, fighting styles have been passed on from generation to generation, and from country to country. This adaptive radiation allowed the arts to emigrate from China into Japan and Korea, giving us the eclectic variety of styles we have today. Developed to improve self-defense and combative success, martial arts were created in the ancient cultures of Asia. In general, martial arts involve fighting techniques, mental discipline, physical exercise, and various philosophical components. Most of them embody intellectual concepts as well. The Taoist philosophy of balance, Buddhist meditation and breathing, and Confucian ethics have all greatly influenced martial arts. Our society has become increasingly interested in these martial arts over the last fifty years. We are finally beginning to realize all the wonderful benefits that martial arts have to offer.

My interest in martial arts stems from my childhood obsession with ninjas and Kung Fu movies. The media capitalized on the "mystical" and superhuman qualities depicted in the legends of the martial arts. Just like many of the boys my age, I wanted to grow up to be a ninja. It didn't take long to figure out that becoming a ninja was not a practical career choice. Either way, I still wanted to see exactly what martial arts were all about. I started taking Hapkido, a Korean fighting style, at ten years old and was able to get my brown belt just before my family moved. In high school I took Tang Su Do for two years, stopping when I got my first knee surgery. After my third, and hopefully final, knee surgery, I started training in Bando with the Montgomery County S.W.A.T. Team. Bando is a Burmese fighting style made popular in the United States by a man named Dr. U Maung Gyi. This was quite an experience and only fueled my thirst for knowledge about the arts. During my first semester at the George Washington University, I took advantage of the opportunity to take a class devoted to studying the history of Asian martial arts.

As an N.S.P.A. certified personal trainer, and a pre-medical biology major, my interest in the human body is also something that I devote a lot of time to. I am fascinated with how the body works. While my future career will require me to use American medical procedures, I am interested in what the East has to offer. Writing this paper presents me with an opportunity to combine two of my favorite things; martial arts and the human body. My goal is to analyze the positive effects of martial arts training. In this paper, I will discuss the basic elements of various fighting styles. While doing this, I will show that properly practiced martial arts can bring about a number of beneficial physical and psychological effects. This will give people yet another reason to start some kind of training. I am a firm believer that martial arts are for everyone, regardless of race, sex, age, or religious beliefs.

Many of the physical benefits of training resemble those achieved by any other form of exercise. A normal training session of taekwondo or Hapkido involves a period of warming up, stretching, then training. The exercise one gets from martial arts training improves balance, flexibility, stamina, and posture. Weight loss is promoted through extended cardiovascular activity. These are all results of long term martial arts training and can, for the most part, be achieved by doing any type of sport or exercise regimen for an extended period of time. These physical changes are easily noticed and often sought after so much that the more subtle health benefits are overlooked.


Qigong and Hypertension

Qigong, the ancient Chinese practice of harnessing Qi (vital energy), is receiving a lot of attention as a major part of traditional Chinese medicine. Medical Qigong has been practiced for centuries to promote health, healing, self-defense, longevity, and spiritual development. One of the goals of practitioners is to master tension and relaxation. Chinese doctors prescribe certain forms of Qigong to patients, depending on their diagnosis. According to them, many illnesses are cause by a disrupted flow of energy through the meridians. Meridians are channels that allow energy to flow through the body. The Qigong techniques provide a balance of energy in the patient's body in an effort to return them to good health. Chinese medicine attributes great importance to the homeostasis of energy in the body.

According to Lee and Lei, Qigong consists of three different methods. These methods are movement-oriented Qigong, meditation-oriented Qigong, and breathoriented Qigong. Abdominal breathing is a vital part of Qigong. This deep breathing allows for more oxygen intake per breath. In Qigong as well as yoga, deep breathing also serves as a hypnotic tool. By focusing on the breathe, one can truly relax and pay full attention to the body. During these semi- meditative states, metabolic, autonomic, endocrine, neurological, and psychological changes can be noted (Shin, 2).

In America, doctors tend to prescribe drugs for hypertension. Hypertension is another word for high blood pressure, and is a very common problem in our society. Essential hypertension is one form of high blood pressure that has no detectable cause (Lee, 1), and is treated as soon as possible to prevent cardiovascular disease. The use of antihypertensive drugs does have side effects, suggesting that an alternative form of prevention may be better in the long run. Due to the side effects of antihypertensive drugs, there is a growing interest in non-pharmaceutical procedures to treat and prevent hypertension.

The American Journal of Chinese Medicine published a study on the effects that Qigong has on blood pressure in mildly hypertensive subjects. The primary goal of the study was to prove that ten weeks of Qigong practice could lower one's blood pressure. The other goals included identifying the underlying mechanism responsible for lowering the blood pressure, and to examine the ventilatory functions indirectly related to blood pressure. Blood pressure, ventilatory function, urinary catecholamine levels, forced respiratory volume per second, and the forced vital capacity were measured in all the patients before and after the training period.

After ten weeks of Qigong training, blood pressure decreased in those practicing Qigong, and did not decrease in the control group. Many hypertensive patients have proclaimed that receiving Qi auspiciously affects heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other important bodily functions that determine one's health.

A decreased level of urinary catecholamines is indicative of a lower level of sympathetic nervous system activity. Catecholamines play important physiological roles as hormones and neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and dopamine. Blood pressure is directly related to sympathetic neurological activity. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "fight or flight" response we ha ve when faced with a stressful situation. Therefore, Qigong is thought to lower blood pressure by affecting sympathetic nervous system activity.

As for the ventilatory function, patients experienced an average increase of 20% for oxygen uptake. These increases in expiratory capacity show that Qigong can be an extremely beneficial martial art for those looking to improve their health. This study shows that through relaxation and stabilization of sympathetic nervous system activity, Qigong can help treat and protect against mild essential hypertension. Along with lower sympathetic nervous system activity comes a lower level of overall stress. With a lower level of stress comes a lower level of Cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that regulates our metabolism of carbohydrates. High levels of Cortisol are known to cause weight gain, persistent fatigue, raise blood sugar levels, and more. The study did not take this into account, but regulation of Cortisol levels by reduction of stress is yet another benefit of Qigong training.


Taekwondo and Anaerobic Power

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that focuses greatly on kicking. It is practiced in over 140 countries and studied by over a million people of all ages every day (Melhim, 2). Due to its reputation as a self-defense system as opposed to a fitness program, few studies have been done to investigate all the finely tuned benefits of this training. Dr. A. F. Melhim published a study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine that investigates the acute cardiorespiratory responses to taekwondo training. The goal of this study was to learn more about the aerobic and anaerobic power associated with taekwondo.

In this study, nineteen male adolescents who were already practicing taekwondo were selected to participate. They had all practiced for approximately one year, had similar technical skill, and trained for at least one hour three times a week. These participants were all placed in an intermediate taekwondo class. The students took maximal aerobic power exercise tests on a cycle ergometer. Their heart rate and oxygen uptake were measured continuously during the test. During training, the subjects performed various sequences of movements including blocks, punches kicks, and twisting, leaping, and jumping techniques. They performed these sequences fifteen times a day, three days a week, for eight weeks.

After the training period, the participants were tested for maximum aerobic and anaerobic power. The results show that the training had no significant effect on the volume of oxygen uptake, or resting heart rate. On the other hand, significant improvements were seen in the anaerobic power and capacity of the young men. This suggests that taekwondo may be an efficient form of anaerobic training for adolescent males. The lack of cardiovascular gains can be attributed to the fact that the students' heart rates were not raised to high enough levels and sustained for the necessary amount of time. Further investigations are needed to confirm these results, but it is accepted that taekwondo can be used to improve and maintain anaerobic power in adolescent males (Melhim, 8).


Tai Chi and Taekwondo and the Elderly

The ancient art of Tai Chi has been used to promote health in China for hundreds of years. This graceful art uses slow, circular movements to exercise the body, mind, and consciousness. In China, Tai Chi is regarded as one of the best overall forms of exercise. Twenty years ago, America started to catch on and has been investigating the benefits of Tai Chi since 1980. This martial art is especially popular with the elderly population because it is generally slower than other forms of exercise and can be practiced without too much physical exertion. The low velocity, low impact movements can be performed by older individuals experiencing joint degeneration, muscle atrophy, poor balance, and low stamina.

Li Hong and K. M. Chan reviewed thirty-one studies published in American and Chinese Journals. Their goal was to assess the overall effects of Tai Chi on metabolism and cardiorespiratory response, mental control, prevention of falls in the elderly and immune capacity. The measures taken in these studies include metabolic rate, heart rate, ventilation, maximal oxygen uptake, blood pressure, immune capacity, and number of falls.

The results of Hong's and Chan's review show that Tai Chi can be classified as moderate exercise, because it does not demand more than 55% of maximal oxygen uptake. After comparing the results of thirty-one studies, Hong and Chan determined that "Tai Chi exercise is beneficial to cardiorespiratory function, immune capacity, mental control, flexibility, and balance control." (Hong, 2) It also helps to improve muscle strength, leading to a reduced risk of falls in the elderly.

As stated earlier, practicing martial arts can increase strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility. Inevitably, these physical properties dissipate with age. With decreasing physical ability, the elderly are susceptible to extreme injury and death due to falling. Falls are reported to be a leading cause of accidental death of the elderly (Brudnak, 1). Recently, a study was conducted to test the effects of taekwondo training on senior citizens. While many studies have tested and proven the benefits of Tai Chi and other soft martial arts, this is the first to investigate the results of the elderly training in a hard martial art.

Proven benefits of Tai Chi training for the elderly include: increased strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and prevention of osteoporosis. Improvement in any of these areas leads to a decreased risk of harmful falls. The Mark Brudnak study was designed to see if taekwondo can bring about similar results. The study began with twenty-seven senior citizens. After a preliminary screening for any neural or muscular disorders, twelve were approved to begin training. The remaining participants were tested for trunk flexibility, one- leg balance, and the number of pushups they could do. After seventeen weeks of instruction, the group was tested again to see what improvements they made. Trunk flexibility increased by an average of 3.5 inches. The average time participants were able to balance on one leg increased by an average of sixteen seconds for either leg. Interestingly enough, the group's number of pushups increased by an average of 1.8, but pushups were never done during the training program. This proves that practitioners of taekwondo experience overall strength gains that reach beyond the specific exercises that are practiced. This trait gives taekwondo an advantage when it comes to fall prevention. These results show that both hard and soft martial arts can be practiced be the elderly to increase balance, flexibility, strength and in turn lower the risk of dangerous falls.

While it is apparent that martial arts are good for health, it turns out they can also strengthen your immune system. Michael Irwin is a professor at the U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Institute who decided to put this theory to a test. He conducted a study to see if a regular Tai Chi program could help prevent the re-emergence of chickenpox. Caused by the varicella zoster virus, chickenpox is an unpleasant rash that most children encounter during their early years. For the most part, children recover from chickenpox without any major complications. This virus, however, does not completely go away but remains dormant in nervous tissue. With age comes a weakened immune system. Therefore, as one gets older, the virus is more likely to come back. Whe n chickenpox does come back, it is called shingles. Shingles is a long- lasting, painful rash caused by the re-emergence of the varicella zoster virus.

Michael Irwin had eighteen elderly people practice Tai Chi for fifteen weeks. After the fifteen weeks, he tested the group's immune response to shingles. Irwin compared the levels of response to a group that did not practice Tai Chi. The elderly individuals that took part in the Tai Chi program showed an average 50% increase of immunity to shingles. Also, for reasons unknown, the subjects that had physical disabilities showed the greatest improvements (Whitney, 2).

Dr. Peter Douris, of the New York Institute of Technology, published his study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Douris tested the overall fitness of a group of eighteen people between the ages of forty and sixty. Nine of these people lived relatively sedentary lifestyles, with no frequent exercise training of physical activity. The other half of the group had been practicing soo bahk do for approximately three years. Soo bak do is a Korean martial art comparable to taekwondo.

On average, those who practiced martial arts had 12% less body fat than those who had no training. The practitioners also averaged 66 sit-ups while the sedentary group averaged 37. The soo bahk do group also showed greater flexibility and twice the balancing power of the inactive group. According to Dr. Douris, martial arts are a safe and effective way to protect against disease and reduce the negative effects of aging (Aging, 2).


Psychological Benefits of Martial Arts Training

While there is a decent amount of empirical data on the physical benefits of martial arts training, the psychological and social effects are more obscure. The effects of long-term martial arts training are still being investigated, and there have been a number of interesting studies. Most of the studies that have been conducted are similar in showing that martial art training generally causes positive psychological and social adjustments.

One of the most psychologically beneficial aspects of martial arts training is the increase in self-confidence. Many Americans live in fear of being attacked. We have all been in situations where our self- confidence has been questioned. Many people feel this insecurity walking down the street at night, or facing a bully at school. Beating everyone up is obviously not a reasonable solution. Learning self-defense increases the selfconfidence of practitioners by taking away their feeling of vulnerability. The goal is not to teach people to fight those who argue or disagree, but to teach them to defend themselves when necessary. Confidence allows you to remain calm during difficult situations. By remaining calm, one can assess the situation more clearly and act appropriately. When faced with a compromising situation, those capable of defending themselves should need to use physical force less often than those who cannot defend themselves.

Most studies on the long-term effects of martial arts training agree that martial arts are affective in producing positive social and psychological changes. There is usually an inverse relationship between the amount of time someone has been practicing, and the level of their aggression, hostility, and anxiety. The opposite can be said about the independence, self-reliance, and self-confidence of practitioners, which tends to increase with the period of time they have been training. Some martial arts lead to psychological benefits more quickly than others. For instance, one study showed that over a short period of time, karate students experienced a decrease in anxiety, but aikido students did not (Binder, 2). This suggests that if the martial art is more foreign and complex, it may take longer to reap the psychological benefits of it.

The differences between martial arts and regular sports may be responsible for their ability to significantly improve social and psychological health. Common American sports have many similarities with martial arts training. These include physical fitness, coordination development, and social interaction. The Eastern arts, however, differ in their focus on the overall development of the practitioner. While martial arts tend to strive toward self-control and self-knowledge, many Western sports focus solely on competition between individuals and groups. This emphasis on winning is present in the competitive aspect of martial arts considering the kill or be killed environment in which martial arts were developed. Over the last thirty years, martial arts have become increasingly popular as competitive sports, hence the addition of judo and taekwondo in the Olympics. The difference between martial arts and western sports is that the arts generally have a large amount of ritual and philosophical components. Martial arts also tend to focus on mind/body integration through a combination of meditation and physical activity. While regular exercise has proven to have a positive psychological influence, research that directly compares martial arts with regular exercise shows greater and more diverse psychological benefits through martial arts training. Judo has proven to lead to more easy going attitudes and decreased rates of violence in adolescents. Tai Chi has proven to decrease anger, insomnia, and nightmares, while increasing the practitioner's positive outlook on life. Military Hapkido training has proven to strengthen group moral and self-confidence more than regular weight- lifting or obstacle course training (Binder, 4).

Thirty years of research on this topic supports the anecdotal reports that martial arts are good for the mind as well as the body. Most studies arrive at the same conclusions. The main goal of many current studies is to reveal exactly how this process works. It is assumed that the non-physical aspects of martial arts contribute to the long-term benefits. The use of martial arts for their therapeutic properties is also being thoroughly investigated, and will hopefully prove to be very productive in the near future. Many psychologists are willing to admit that under proper supervision, martial arts can be a very helpful form of psychotherapy.


Conclusion

Martial arts have been able to stand up to all the scientific tests. They are obviously physically and mentally beneficial. Different martial arts bring about different effects. If someone wants to battle stress and anxiety, most forms of martial arts will suffice. For the elderly and those that are physically limited, Tai Chi and Qigong are wonderful forms of exercise. For adolescents, taekwondo and Hapkido can work wonders. The martial arts, however, are by no means age specific. Taekwondo has also been shown to greatly help elderly people and prevent them from taking harmful falls. Whatever martial art one chooses to practice will undoubtedly affect him/her in a positive way.

Asian martial arts pick up where Western sports are lacking. They promote a healthy way of life as well as physical development. This combination allows martial arts to work wonders for many people. If the drug companies weren't so powerful in America, maybe the health benefits of martial arts would be more readily accepted. Here, we tend to prescribe drugs for whatever ails us. Martial arts are obviously not some magical remedy for all of our illnesses, but there is definitely something to them that we don't understand yet. It is amazing to think that the Chinese have been using martial arts for thousands of years, and we are just now starting to figure out what they involve.

Overall, studies have verified that properly practiced marital arts can bring about positive physical and psychological changes. Very few will disagree with this fact. However, there is much to be learned about how these changes are produced. The Asian martial arts have turned out to be more than just tools for self-defense. They have developed into systems that not only protect the practitioner from attackers, but also from poor physical and psychological health.


Bibliography

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Massey, Patrick M.D. Ph.D. "Increased Lung Capacity Through Qigong Breathing." Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Vol. 2 1993.
Melhim, A.F. "Aerobic and Anaerobic Power Responses to the Practice of Taekwondo". British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2001.
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Whitney, William. "Tai Chi Bolsters Shingles Immunity" Psychology Today, Sept. 23, 2003.

 
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