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Karate has also been shown to improve a person’s emotional well-being

We are all aware that exercise generally has many benefits, such as improving fitness and strength. But what do we know about the effects of specific types of exercise? Researchers have already shown that jogging can increase life expectancy, for example, while yoga makes us happy.

However, there is an activity that goes beyond improving physical and mental health: martial arts can also increase brain cognition.

Researchers say there are two ways to improve attention, through attention training (AT) and attention state training (AST). TA is based on practicing a specific skill and improving that skill, but not others, such as using a video game for brain training.

AST, on the other hand, is about entering a specific mental state that allows for greater concentration. This can be done using exercise, meditation, or yoga, among other things.

Martial arts have been suggested to be a form of AST and, to support this, recent research has shown a link between practice and increased vigilance. Further supporting this idea, another study showed that the practice of martial arts – particularly karate – is linked to better performance in a divided attention task.

This is a task where the person must keep two rules in mind and respond to the cues based on whether they are auditory or visual.

In a US study, children between the ages of eight and 11 were instructed to train traditional martial arts focused on respecting other people and self-defence as part of an anti-bullying program. The children were also taught how to maintain a level of self-control in the hottest situations.

Researchers found that martial arts training reduced the level of aggressive behaviour in boys and found that they were more likely to step in and help someone who was bullied than before they took part in the training.

There were no significant changes in the girls’ behaviour, potentially because they showed much lower levels of physical aggression before training than boys.

Interestingly, this anti-aggression effect is not limited to young children. Another piece of research found a reduction in physical and verbal aggression, as well as hostility, in teens who also practiced martial arts.

Some forms of martial arts, such as tai chi, place great emphasis on controlled breathing and meditation. These were strongly linked in one study with reduced feeling of stress, as well as being able to better manage stress when it is present in young and middle-aged adults.

This effect was also found in the elderly – the 330 participants in this research also had a mean age of 73 years. And the softer, smoother movements make it an ideal, low-impact exercise for older people.

As several scientists are now examining the links between emotional well-being and physical health, it is vital to note that martial arts have been shown to improve a person’s emotional well-being as well.

In the linked study above, 45 older adults (aged 67 to 93 years) were asked to take part in karate training, cognitive training, or non-martial physical training for three to six months.

Seniors in karate training showed lower levels of depression after the training period than both other groups, possibly due to its meditative aspect. It was also reported that these adults showed a higher level of self-esteem even after training.

After comparing a sedentary control group with a group of people who practice karate, the Italian researchers found that taking part in karate can improve a person’s working memory. They used a test that involved calling up and repeating a series of numbers, both in the correct order and backwards, which increased in difficulty until the participant was able to continue.

The karate group was much better at this task than the control group, which meant they could remember longer series of numbers. Another project found similar results by comparing the practice of tai chi with “western exercise”: strength, endurance, and endurance training.

Evidently, there is a lot more to martial arts than its traditional roles. Although they have been practiced for self-defence and spiritual development for many hundreds of years, only relatively recently have researchers had the methods to assess the true extent of how this practice affects the brain.

Ashleigh Johnstone is a PhD researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University. This article was originally published in The Conversation

Ashleigh Johnstone  / Monday 14 May 2018