The scientific foundations of the stress-free lives of martial artists
Martial arts in its many forms has been glamorised in media for its portrayal of composed, sheathed individuals who, no matter what the situation, look collected and at peak physical health, and live relatively simple lives without want for much material goods.
In reality, martial artists dedicate portions of their lives, if not their entire lives, to exercising enormous discipline in conditioning body and mind. The image does not exist magically but is a direct result of what happens behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or energy to cultivate the myriad effects of training in a martial art but, luckily, one doesn’t have to hit concrete or do handstand pushups all day to reap the mental and physical rewards offered by a martial art.
In Tai Chi it’s called "Chi breathing", where the living energy in the body is made fluid through breathing exercises. In the Keysi fighting method it’s called "visualizacion dinamica", a form of meditation much like the bunkai of Japanese martial arts including karate, that consolidates the form of the fighting system in a closed-eye meditation to exercise a muscle memory-instinctive calm switch in physical confrontations.
In most if not all martial arts, there is some form of integrative meditation component that forms the building blocks of a balanced yet formidable martial artist, because martial artists understand that half the battle is won and lost in the mind.
Neurologically, if a mind can be trained to remain calm in a fight/flight situation (or anything that incites stress), the body will secrete less cortisol (the stress hormone).
According to the Endocrine Society, "Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation and assist with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing foetus during pregnancy... a crucial hormone to protect overall health and wellbeing."
Nutritionist Dina Aronson says elevated cortisol leads to "increased blood sugar levels... this mechanism can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes."
Acupuncturist Richard Hackworth wrote in his Martial Arts as Preventive Medicine: "An increase in breathing exercises and forms training helped me recover from type 2 diabetes and I am no longer insulin dependent because of it."
Stress is a symptom of the challenging pace we face in today’s world, even when there is little likelihood of encountering truly life-threatening stressors in our everyday environment. Controlling our response to stress eliminates to a great extent the hijacking function of the amygdala over the neocortex, the centre in the brain responsible for logical, executive functioning and healthy decision making. Managing emotions is vital in martial arts, and being equipped with the capacity to do so benefits life beyond the dojo.
I am easily able to shift into ‘student mode’, or as I know it ‘Shoshin’, the Beginner Mind. When I do this I learn from a point of not knowing and therefore learn more. This has helped me greatly in understanding my depression and therefore managing it more effectively
In her paper The Benefits of Taekwondo Training for Undergraduate Students: A Phenomenological Study, Kimberley Petrovic recorded of the participants in her study that aside from learning "about the importance of being more assertive when addressing bullies" and the ability to "control one’s actions and emotions even when someone else lacks this sort of control", students were "letting go of stress/not becoming as stressed as before and focusing on ‘good stress’ related to aspects of taekwondo (for example, breaking boards, memorising form sequences)".
The students involved in the study informed her that after just two months of training in taekwondo, a healthy theme of "balancing ‘bad’ versus ‘good’ stress, addressing financial concerns and focusing on school responsibilities" emerged.
Matt Short, a martial arts instructor with a background in karate and Muay Thai, says: "Martial arts training has helped me on mental, spiritual and physiological levels. It has taught me focus, which manifests in my daily life as the ability to complete tasks that I begin with little to no distraction.
"I am easily able to shift into ‘student mode’, or as I know it ‘Shoshin’, the Beginner Mind. When I do this I learn from a point of not knowing and therefore learn more. This has helped me greatly in understanding my depression and therefore managing it more effectively. This translates into my spiritual life too, where, to a point, I can shut out all mental chatter and focus on stillness and quiet … the biggest benefit for me is being able to manage my energy."
Shane Engelbrecht, a martial arts practitioner and coach based in Grahamstown, says martial arts has helped him dilute confrontation situations.
"It is a direct counter to uncontrolled aggression. If someone disrespects me, I can calm it down."
It has also helped him manage his mental health, especially depression. "That’s where the training has helped me improve my self-image. It’s given me a sense of achievement, to the point where I come in here [the gym] and feel afterwards, ‘Hey, I can do this. I am somebody.’
"I like the combination of boxing and Muay Thai. I don’t classify Krav Maga as a martial sport, because it’s a defensive system. You can’t go full blast unless you have padding, because you’re going to get seriously injured. [Krav Maga] feeds into extreme aggression, whereas with boxing there are specific rules.
"Boxing and Muay Thai … help me find balance.... With boxing and Muay Thai, your brain has to rewire itself due to the intensity of the training.... It is a form of meditation for me."
How does practising a martial art accomplish improved mental and physical health on a physiological level? Hackworth found that physiological changes are "a function of the rebalancing of the sympathetic (fight and flight) and parasympathetic (rest and repair) halves of the autonomic nervous system".
The Inchon Sports College of Korea found "increased parasympathetic tone in martial arts-trained subjects and ascribes the slowing of heart rate and reduction in blood pressure to this increased tone ... martial arts training reduces hypertensive blood pressure, and the response is distance/ intensity graded."