In today’s guest blog, our thanks goes to Sensei Dan Verghese from Kazoku Ju Jitsu, who shares with us why martial arts are good for your wellbeing. Dan Verghese has practised a variety of martial arts since 1998 and teaches Japanese ju-jitsu to adults and children in High Wycombe, Maidenhead and Marlow.
The term “martial arts” (MA) applies to a broad collection of physical activities, often but not exclusively of asian origin, which collectively as a sector encompasses hundreds of thousands of practitioners in the UK. Worldwide there are thousands of distinct martial arts, but in the UK the best-known styles include aikido, karate, ju-jitsu, kung fu, kickboxing, judo, brazilian jiu-jitsu and taekwondo, among others.
Since the end of Covid-related lockdowns, martial arts clubs have seen a resurgence in participation as people search for activities that not only improve their physical health, but have a positive impact on mental health and lifestyle. The unique nature of martial arts practice makes it an excellent alternative to the gym, which many find boring and monotonous.
Contrary to what some may assume, martial arts is not the preserve of children or young men. It is a rewarding hobby for many, which for a few becomes a lifelong journey of self-improvement and discovery.
In this post we explore seven key areas where martial arts are good for your wellbeing:
1. Fitness & Weight-loss
Any activity that raises your heart rate and gets you sweating, will clearly be good for your physical fitness. The fitness benefits of MA do differ from art to art, as each has distinguishing features which work the body in different ways. Taekwondo, kickboxing and sport karate are excellent workouts as sparring is a high-intensity exercise which strengthens and tones the whole body. Taekwondo and Muay Thai (thai boxing) will tone up and strengthen the legs, as well as increase overall flexibility.
Grappling-based arts such as ju-jitsu, judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu will benefit overall strength, particularly in the core, and ground-fighting/grappling done at high intensity is the best cardio-vascular workout you will ever find. Many of my adult students who get into the habit of regular training, say twice a week, have noticed substantial weight-loss and improved fitness.
2. Emotional wellbeing and stress relief
Practising MA, like most forms of exercise is great for stress management. The endorphins released during exercise can be just the thing to make you feel better at the end of a stressful day, and regular exercise is usually one of the first recommendations made to people who suffer from depression.
However, martial arts practice can go beyond the simple, well-understood effect that exercise has on mental health. Full-contact sports such as kickboxing, boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA) and Brazilian jiu-jitsu incorporate stressful situations into their regular training. For example, ground-fighting at full intensity is an inherently stressful situation, yet the environment is always controlled, as each participant knows they can ‘tap-out’ at any time.
This regular exposure to stressful yet controlled situations is often said by players to spill-over into better stress management in day-to-day life. After all, if you spend your evenings inuring yourself to stress through physically challenging combat sports, trying to avoid being squashed, kicked or punched, then a tetchy meeting or passive-aggressive email from a colleague is less likely to rile you up.
3. Focus and concentration
Improvements in focus and concentration are commonly reported by martial artists. This is of particular benefit to children who are still learning to devote their attention to a specific task for a period of time, but it also holds true for adults, particularly in the short-attention-span, screen-based social media culture in which we now find ourselves.
Learning a particularly tricky sequence of movements (known as kata/poomsae/patterns/forms depending on the art in question) is challenging and requires single-minded concentration. Performing these forms, once learned, can induce a flow-state and is often likened to a moving meditation. Tai chi is a great example of a martial art entirely based around pre-set sequences that must be memorised and perfected. Martial artists often find that over time their brain learns how to focus better, and to retain and recall complex sets of information. Ju-jitsu is particularly strong here, as it is a technically challenging and detail-oriented art which takes years to perfect.
4. Balance and coordination
Most MAs will lead to improved balance and coordination if practised regularly and diligently. Anything that involves regularly balancing on one foot, as during kicking, or when executing judo/ju-jitsu throws, will lead to improvement in balance and in the connection between mind and body.
Instructors often find that new students lack coordination, be they young children or adults with sedentary office jobs, but that gains are quickly made through the regular repetition of fine and gross motor skills that MAs demand.
Not all martial arts are created equal in this regard. Some such as kickboxing, boxing, taekwondo etc tend to focus more on gross motor skills (namely punching and kicking) whilst other such as aikido emphasize finer motor skills, but either way, the combination of movement, distancing, and interacting physically with partners will lead to practitioners becoming more in tune with their own bodies over time.
Lack of confidence is often one of the key reasons that adults, particularly women, turn to martial arts. Sadly, it’s also the main reason preventing people from taking the leap and walking through the door to their first class. The first step in the journey is usually the hardest.
MA can be highly confidence-building as students begin to become fitter, leaner and stronger, thus developing a more positive body-image. The acquisition of self-defence skills instils a quiet confidence and reduces the victim-mentality that some people suffer from, which in turn makes it much less likely that you’ll become the victim of violent crime. Criminals tend to seek out victims and can read body language well. Through projecting an air of confidence and walking around alert and with your head up, the chance of becoming a victim of crime lessens.
Gaining physical strength and skill through MA training is particularly empowering for women, leading to improved self-respect, body image and overall confidence in life. It may be no coincidence that many leading female (as well as male) martial artists are also highly successful in their careers, as they have gained the confidence to aim high and adopt a growth mindset.
Self-actualisation is all about reaching your potential, developing your abilities to their fullest, and leading a fulfilled life. Self-actualisation is the top-tier of Maslow’s famous ‘hierarchy of needs’.
In an MA context, consistent, regular training over many years can and does lead to massive improvements in practitioners’ quality of lives, instilling a mindset of hard work, perseverance and goal-setting, which often spills over into other aspects of life. Martial artists realise they can exceed their self-imposed limitations, and therefore learn to recognise and break them down.
The hierarchical belt systems pioneered by Jigoro Kano, founder of judo, in the late 1800s and since adopted and adapted by many other martial arts styles, is a great asset that differentiates MA from other sports. The clear syllabus requirements, progressive steps and character-building nature of formal gradings all serve to foster a goal-setting mindset and act as a powerful reward system. Even where belts are not used, similar benefits are gained through the gradual mastery of techniques, or by testing yourself against your peers in competition.
7. Values & Philosophy – (flow state/moving meditation)
Many MAs contain a values-based framework, which governs their use and sets expectations of how practitioners should conduct themselves and live their lives. This varies greatly from art to art and is not universal, but the more traditional and regimented arts are particularly known for this.
MAs with a name ending in “do” (meaning ‘way’ in Japanese/Korean) often tend to include a values system which may be underpinned by a deeper philosophy. Aikido for example is based on overcoming an opponent without hurting them, blending with their energy, and aikido exponents strive to achieve inner peace. Taekwondo has its ‘Five Tenets’ of Courtesy, Integrity, Respect, Self Control and Indomitable Spirit. Arts with a strong culture of discipline and a clear set of values can be a great fit for children, but many adults also enjoy this added dimension to their training, which is missing in other sporting or fitness arenas.
To get involved in martial arts and see if they are for you, all you need to do is contact some local clubs and take advantage of the free trial sessions that most offer. Most clubs are very welcoming and will make you feel right at home, but it’s important to find a club with a culture that suits you as an individual.
To reap the rewards that martial arts can offer, all you need to do is pick up the phone, then walk through the door.