Lydia Tesfa PhD
Research Associate Professor
Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Jack and Pearl Resnick Campus
1300 Morris Park Avenue
According to the CDC, approximately half of American adults (117 million people) today have one or more preventable chronic diseases. With seven of the ten most common chronic diseases being favorably influenced by regular physical activity, nearly 80 percent of adults are not meeting key guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. This lack of physical activity is linked to approximately $117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10 percent of premature mortality. Obesity is not restricted to resource-rich countries. A recent study describing obesity related challenges in low-resource countries is a good example. The study demonstrated a high prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents in Ethiopia (1). Exercise is not only vital for physical health, but it can also positively impact the overall wellness of the body, including mental health. This may be easier said than done – we are inundated with daily stories of diseases and fatal afflictions – and data shows that children are the most susceptible. They are increasingly plagued with chronic conditions such as diabetes and childhood obesity, which have reached epidemic status among children and teenagers. While factors such as genetic predisposition, environment and education play major roles in health wellness, good nutrition paired with introduction to physical activity, beginning at an early age, provides children with a solid foundation of health that can follow them into adulthood, surpassing physical health and positively affecting mental health, as well.
One such physical activity is martial arts. Martial arts began some 3000 years ago in modern day Sri Lanka and gradually spread northwest to China, India and Korea (2). The key components of martial arts include elf defense, health and fitness, character training, mind expansion and spiritual developments (3). Martial arts helps the body in conditioning, flexibility and agility, posture, weight, stamina and mental health. Further, physical and mental relaxation, control of and body, and increases in self-confidence are described as additional benefits of martial arts promoting mental health (4). Scientific literature also supports the positive impact of martial arts on mental health, citing improvements in self-esteem (5) emotional stability and assertiveness (6) and reductions in anxiety and depression (7).
These views are no different than the ones expressed by Master Jah Ra SibaSiben, an expert in martial arts with specialization in the disciplines of Kung-Fu, Tai Chi, Weaponry, Chin-Na, Meditation and Qigong. He teaches the principles of martial arts and its health objectives to young children in Washington metropolitan area. Master Jah describes martial arts as a physical activity that can be used to develop/maintain good physical and mental health. Not only it is a great activity that keeps children physically active, but also it instills a sense of achievement in their goal settings and moral codes. It helps children thrive physically and mentally as they work their way up to earning Black Belts.
Moreover, the exercise is unique in that it stresses character development and the importance of life skills more than any other sport or activity. According to the Master, in martial arts, nobody “rides the bench.” Everybody can participate with no previous experience and physical talent. Master Jah reiterated the concept of introducing martial arts to children at a young age, helping them develop healthy habits and behaviors that follow them into adulthood, thereby contributing to life-long health benefits. He went on to explain that a mastery of key elements of martial arts can be achieved through consistent reinforcement and practice of the art. And, these key elements can be examined in detail in the following paragraphs.
Fitness is achieved as a result of martial arts utilizing a high-aerobic workout exercise that uses every muscle group in the body. The children’s stamina, muscle tone, flexibility, balance and strength improve through martial arts training, promoting a healthy lifestyle. Due to the total-body nature of a martial arts workout, tons of calories are burned during every class. The body’s natural eating signals become better regulated, resulting in less food cravings, and better moderated diet. Furthermore, by participating regularly in martial arts classes, children acquire greatly improved muscle mass and tone. The greater the muscle mass, the higher the metabolic demand will be, and subsequently, the more calories are burned by the body each day, thereby helping to prevent obesity and promote weight loss.
Another critical benefit of physical exercise is improved Posture. Young children spend hours playing at computer games and watching TV, which causes hunched, rounded shoulders and a weakened lower spine. Not only does this damage the spine and lead to backache, it also increases stress, prevents from breathing properly, and even negatively impacts one’s confidence (our body language can often inform our mental state). Young children can develop proper posture by executing martial arts techniques that are regularly applied during class.
Martial arts practice may be important in helping reduce injuries by improving Balance. Kinesthetic awareness, or “body awareness,” is what allows one to estimate where the body is in space at any given time. This is related to balance, but also spatial awareness and agility. Martial arts techniques require children to stay conscious of their body while accessing more difficult technique moves: balancing on one foot while throwing different kicks and holding certain position that require refined balance. This practice builds up strength in their smaller supporting muscles, as well as throughout the body’s core muscles. On the mental level, young children learn how to balance their time efficiently, whether playing games, doing homework, or keeping their room clean and orderly. Coordination is another area that is improved by this physical exercise. It teaches students to balance in a number of positions, strengthening their stabilizer muscles, rendering them less prone to in injury in everyday life.
Focus plays a key role in martial arts. Many young children have a limited attention span. By training in martial arts, they learn to focus on the task at hand, possibly for the first time in their lives. Acquiring this skill prepares young children for better performance whether they are in martial arts class, or in school. Behind the punches, kicks and knee strikes, as martial artist, a child learns to sit with him/herself and see where his/her weaknesses are, what it is to be focused and challenged.
Memory/Mental Mastery is another crucial aspect of martial arts. It improves memory by requiring children to recall individual forms, steps, routines and patterns, making martial arts a great mental exercise. Remembering their martial arts techniques and memorizing their forms is mandatory, so they remember the important things taught in class, which help them make smarter decisions whether in training class or in school. Increasing mental exercise keeps the mind quick, alert and open.
Martial arts is based upon discipline. Due to the goal set of becoming a Black Belt, positive encouragement and respect for values, staying committed, being punctual, following through (“stick-to-it-tive-ness”) and finishing tasks on time are all part of martial arts training.
Self-confidence is another area of personal development. Due to the goal-setting, positive encouragement, and respect for values that are part of the martial arts program, children become more comfortable in all situations, whether they are in danger or simply doing a task that takes them beyond their comfort zone.
The impact of martial arts on the varying areas explored above serve to highlight the multi-faceted benefits that physical exercise brings. Its positive effects are especially profound when it is begun in one’s formative years: childhood. The integration of martial arts as well as other physical activities in daily exercise regimen could be part of solutions designed to address the “emerging nutrition linked problem associated with overweight/obesity in Ethiopia” (1).
In today’s age, children all over the globe are tempted by the call of digital devices that renders them indoors, and sedentary, for many hours. Martial arts, among other forms of physical exercise, can be a fun, challenging, and exciting activity for children that simultaneously builds character, discipline, and the important habits that will no doubt be ingrained in their minds and bodies as they develop into healthy adults.
- Alemu Gebrie, Animut Alebel, Abriham Zegeye and Aster Ferede (2018) Prevalence and associated factors of overweight/obesity among children and adolescents in Ethiopia: a systematic review and meta-analysis, BMC Obesity, 5:19
- Corcoron, J. and Farakas, E. (1983) Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. New York: Gallery Books
- Wong, K.K. (1996) The art of Shaolin kung fu. London: Vermillion
- Weiser, M. Kutz, I. and Kutz, S. J. (1995) Psychotherapeutic aspects of martial arts. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 49, 118-12
- Fuller, J. R. (1988) Martial arts and psychological health. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 61, 317-328
- Konzak, B. and Boudreau, F. (1984) Martial arts training and mental health: An exercise in self-help. Canada’s Mental Health, 32, 2-8
- Cai, X. S. (2000) Physical exercise and mental health: a content integrated approach in coping with college students’ anxiety and depression. Physical Educator, 57(2), 69-76