Martial arts can provide numerous health benefits for people of all ages. Perhaps the best studied is tai chi, which, as we’ve reported before, can improve balance and coordination, memory, walking ability, and sleep, as well as reduce anxiety, depression, falls, and knee, back, and other types of chronic pain. But studies have also looked at karate, tae kwon doe, and some other martial arts.
Here’s a summary of benefits uncovered in some recent research:
Cognitive improvements. A 2016 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, which included 89 older women and men, average age 70, looked at the possible cognitive benefits of karate training versus a more general fitness program. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group practiced karate twice a week for five months. A second group did traditional fitness activities twice a week for five months, including running, strength training, gymnastics, and other activities that build coordination, balance, strength, and body awareness. A third (control) group just continued their normal activities. Only the karate group showed improvement in attentiveness (as measured by the ability to divide attention between two tasks), reaction time, and mental resilience under stress (which involved a computer test that required the user to react to rapidly changing colors and sounds). It’s not clear why karate would produce better cognitive results than the other types of exercise, but the authors cited other research suggesting that karate’s specific blend of aerobics, balance, and coordination may have a particularly beneficial effect on the brain.
Balance, strength, endurance. A review paper, published in 2014 in the journal Societies, looked at four studies that included 112 people over age 40 who participated in tae kwon do or karate. Despite some problems in methodology, all the studies indicated improvements in balance and the ability to stand for a longer time period on one leg, as well as in reaction time. A small, earlier study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, compared the fitness levels of middle-aged adults who regularly did soo bahk do, a Korean martial art, or were sedentary. Those in the martial arts group—who practiced at least twice a week for the three prior years—had greater strength, balance, flexibility, and aerobic capacity and less body fat. In particular, they had stronger quadriceps muscles and could perform more sit-ups and pushups.
Fall reduction. In a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, older adults with recent injuries from falls were randomized to either take tai chi classes or do leg strengthening exercises for six months. Those in the tai chi group were significantly less likely to fall, and significantly less likely to be injured if they did fall, compared with those in the leg strengthening group.