Are Martial Arts Good for Mental Health?

Yes. Yes they are. But to find out exactly why, and to see some really calming photos of nature, keep reading!

We are all too well-aware of the trend in modern society of declining mental health. Mental health is, understandably, difficult to measure, and even more difficult to compare historically. Our lives today differ so much to how previous generations lived, that it is nearly impossible to say, categorically, how mental wellness has changed. And yet – we know and we feel that it certainly has. 

Levels of depression, anxiety and worse have been on a steady increase in developed countries. I can assume some reasons for these, including lack of meaning, feelings of loneliness, and a general malaise. Whatever the causes, I can assume they are external. If I am correct, then to reduce the influence of external factors that lead to these symptoms is the best way forward. Anecdotally, these would include consumption of social media, news and politics. 

How much time does the average person spend on such things a day? Research by Stacy Jo Dixon, at Statista, shows that the average person spends around 2.5 hours a day just on social media, while the average time per day for the consumption of ALL media is a shocking 12.5 hours, as per Marie Charlotte Gotting at Statista.

We spend more time, actively and passively, allowing noise into our brains than we spend sleeping. It is perhaps just this fact alone that is responsible for declining mental health. No matter the media or content, perhaps our brains simply cannot process the volumes we absorb. Historically this certainly was not the case, when most “media” was books or perhaps songs sung with other people.

In my experience, what brings joy to life are actual, real-world experiences. Further to this, when coupled with physical exertion, real world experiences have an almost immediate effect on mental wellbeing. A paper out of India, has found both substantial physical and mental benefits of exercise. [Mahindru A, Patil P, Agrawal V (January 07, 2023) Role of Physical Activity on Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review.]. We know this.

Are there any specific benefits to martial arts training, in terms of mental wellbeing? I would say, from personal experience, definitely yes. But there is also research that shows this, which I will go into below. Put simply; exercise is good for mind and body, and if you enjoy martial arts, it will only be a benefit.

1. Stress Reduction and Mindfulness

Photo credit: Didin Emelu

Stress has been associated with many physical and mental outcomes, including cardiovascular and metabolic. We have often heard that the brain cannot distinguish between real danger and that caused by stress – which is, in simple terms, a deep worry about a possible negative situation. Stress may not be justified, but for the body and mind, it is a real threat. The solution may be a combination of physical exertion as well as mindfulness. A study from The European Journal of Human Movement has found that,

 “Given that MA requires expenditure of energy done with a high level of concentration, engagement in this form of exercise may provide an interesting and novel strategy for enhancing physical and mental benefits.”

Like meditation or prayer, practicing martial arts, while not overtly spiritual, has beneficial effects on the mind. The combination of concentration and exercise focuses the mind, calms the mind. Noisy minds lead to stress, which leads to poor sleep, which leads to all sorts of problems. Let us quiet the mind.

2. Improved Mood and Self-Esteem

Photo credit: Elijah Hiett

Experience seems to show that aerobic exercise acts in many ways to improve mood in children and adults. So does this study. I can confirm that sparring, for example, is an incredibly aerobic exercise. A short bout can completely exhaust you, while helping to breathe and oxygenate the blood.

Experts speculate that it is because the brain, in very heavy exercise, really has no “bandwidth” to worry or maintain a low mood. It is being fully used to coordinate the physical body and to react to external physical stimuli. This means that one’s mood can immediately be improved by martial arts.

But what about self-esteem? This is more evident and proven by anecdotal evidence. As we get better at something, we feel more valuable and think a little bit more highly of our abilities. Training martial arts is no exception, in fact, it is likely even more powerful than other sports because we learn to deal with physical danger.

3. Reduced Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

Photo credit: Meric Dagli

I should note that the benefits of training apply to children as well, as this study from 2004 in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies shows. The study selected from a cohort of children with severe learning disabilities and anxiety. Children would practice Tai Chi, moderately, twice a week, for a period of time. The results suggest that, in this case, weekly Tai Chi has great benefits for children with hyperactivity and heightened anxiety.

The authors of a 2019 study on psychosocial effects of practicing martial arts noted the following:

“A recent meta-analysis examining the effects of martial arts training on mental health examined 14 studies and found that martial arts training had a positive effect on mental health outcomes .The study found that martial arts training had a medium effect size regarding reducing internalizing mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression; and a small effect size regarding increasing wellbeing.”

Don’t worry, be scrappy. Or rather, be scrappy and, thus, don’t worry.

4. Enhanced Cognitive Function

I have to admit, the idea of improvements to cognition never really crossed my mind. Most people practice martial arts for reasons of fitness, interest and health. Is it really possible that it can also improve actual brain functioning and thinking?

Yes, it does. This interesting study, called Martial Arts Training and Cognitive Performance in Middle-Aged Adults compared martial arts (a high exertion activity) to a long walk (low exertion activity). Both activities had clear benefits, namely for attention and processing speed

I would add, as a side note, that there are many scientists that associate intelligence with reaction times, or processing speed. This might mean martial arts can make you smarter. I should add that reaction times today for the average person are slowed than they were when the first started measuring them, over a century ago.

But it gets better. Only martial arts, in this study, showed an improvement in executive function.  The study defines executive function as:

“The highest order of cognitive function involved in selective attention, judgment, anticipation, planning, and conflict resolution.”

But why all these benefits to the brain, we find ourselves asking? This might be the answer.

Winstein et al. (1997) discovered that the cerebral blood flow to areas responsible for cognition rose as the complexities of the movement patterns increased. [Winstein CJ, Grafton ST, Pohl PS. Motor task difficulty and brain activity: investigation of goal-directed reciprocal aiming using positron emission tomography. J Neurophysiol.]

So – keep moving. Keep moving and don’t be afraid of complex movements.

5. Social Support and Sense of Community

Photo credit: Annie Spratt

While one can train martial arts alone, and we certainly do at times, it is typical to train with others: with a master and students. Intuitively, this is beneficial from a social perspective. We are social creatures, but we can also be lazy, and to commit to training with others helps with this also. When we look at other practices, like yoga, it is the same thing. While anyone can practice yoga at home, there is a need for places where people connect with each other.  

There was a study about choirs I read a while ago. The essence was that there was a noticeable increase in hormones that cause contentment when people sing in a choir. There is simply something that 50 people practicing alone cannot reproduce – and it improves your mind and health.

Again, this same benefit is seen in martial arts, namely being part of a dojo.  Here is a study out of Ireland that looked at social benefits for men, specifically men that were depressed or suicidal. They noted a big improvement, especially because of the social aspect and community. 

If we have any doubts about the importance of community, or belonging to a group, we need not look too far back. The pasty few years have wreaked havoc on people’s mental health. Here is a startling survey conducted in the UK which shows that “lockdowns” of churches caused widespread mental harm. We are social creatures.

6. Conflict Resolution, Anger Management and Coping Skills

Photo credit: Simon Marsault

I have often surprised when I learn that someone I know is an expert at martial arts. I used to work with a guy that was a gentle giant, always smiling and utterly non-aggressive. He used to go on short trips abroad and I once asked why. It turns out he spent all his vacation days flying to Asia, to compete in amateur MMA fights.

This is not a unique story. People that are very good at something, in my experience, rarely flaunt it. There is a calm confidence in them. Nervous and angry people cause problems. Confident and calm people remain unaffected to some of life’s challenges. This is, once again, intuitive or something we just know to be true. But what do the studies tell us?

It does seem that studies show a generally positive correlation between martial arts and aggression, which is really anger management. In a rather long paper here, the author notes:

“Hence, several pedagogues and welfare workers have used martial arts in their work with this target group and employ it as an instrument to improve their social and personal development”.

Similarly, a paper from Regina University , showed that people with the greatest difficulties – the men that are in and out of jail and drug users – also found that martial arts was a benefit to them.  

It reminds me of the old definition of the word meek. Meek was historically not considered a synonym for weakness. Rather, it was the idea of strength controlled. Think of a draft horse tethered by a thin leather rope. If someone has great strength, it is a virtue, or maybe a result, that one should not use this aggressively. If martial arts gives us strength and knowledge, we should feel inclined to NOT be aggressive.

In Conlusion

I find all this talk of the benefits of martial arts on mental health gratifyingly, um, obvious. Anyone that has participated in any sport or activity that requires concentration or exertion or group participation will tend to agree. But the nice thing is that actual psychological studies do back up something that we already knew.

Some might also know that the sciences, especially social sciences, have a rather big problem. Some call it The Reproducibility Crisis.  A quick summary would go like this: over 50% of studies are not reproducible. Most are actually meaningless.

I mention this because this page is full of studies. Whatever the reproducibility of them is, it remains true that we have our real-world experiences. And these studies simply confirm what we already know : martial arts are, indeed, good for our mental health.

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