The art of martial arts


As often promoted in this column there is more than one way to skin the cat called exercise and health.

While a thumping gym may be the choice of some, a walk in the fresh air may provide the most effective physical and mental benefit for others.  As always promoted in this column, it almost doesn’t matter what you do, but that you like it enough so that you do it often enough to create a measurable change in your health and physical fitness.

While swimming, cycling, running and walking take the top spots as the preferred form of exercise in the recent Sport NZ Active survey, it is becoming increasingly obvious that it is worth considering martial arts as a form of exercise, for the body and the mind.

While Tai Chi is commonly touted as a suitable low-impact, mobility-inducing exercise for the elderly, it’s likely that pulling on judo kit at 54 years old isn’t.

However, a 2003 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine put a bunch of middle aged volunteers through a number of weeks of martial arts training and ran some tried and trusted fitness tests against their sedentary counterparts to discover any benefits.  What they found was measurably astounding.

The body fat levels of the MA volunteers went down, while their VO2 (aerobic capacity) went up.  Their balance measurably improved, and the new martial artists pumped out an average of 47 pushups in a minute versus 18 for the TV watchers, 66 versus 37 for sit-ups.

Martial arts also scores on the minor injury front, due to the penchant for perfect technique and form, whilst its promotion of calm and focus works as psychological therapy in a number of documented cases.

The old non-promotion of violence mantra whilst ironically teaching people it’s possible to kill someone with sleight of hand is harder for the cynic to swallow, however it would appear the art form takes priority, especially in the non-threatening environment of a school hall on a Wednesday night.

It would also seem that there are more forms, types and styles of martial arts than you can shake a shinai at (look that up in Wikipedia) and finding the style and instructor that suits are critical to long-term commitment.

From a purely physiological perspective, the use of one’s own (and/or an opponent’s) body weight as a form of training is becoming more scientifically heralded and necessary as our lives become more sedentary. The improved muscle control, flexibility, agility and balance gained from the practice of a martial art bode well to combat the unavoidable decrease in these as the body ages.

Mounting research suggests that the connection between the body and mind is much stronger than previously thought, and that health of the body automatically promotes that of the mind (whereas the reverse is not so profound). Add to this the promotion of self-control, discipline and focus that is inherent in martial arts training and it would appear that it provides a bit of an all-round winner.

And in a typically Western-world-slow-to-catch-on-manner, this would not be a lightbulb moment in the Orient.


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