Losing weight, improved fitness, physical self defense skills… there are lots of reasons why people take up martial arts as adults. Certainly the martial arts have a lot to offer in these areas, but many people are surprised by other benefits when they begin their training. Here are a few:
1. Stress relief
Any regular exercise is scientifically shown to relieve stress, but being able to get that exercise surrounded by a supportive community can go a long way to put you at ease. Moreover, many martial artists value their class time as a break from the stressors in their lives. Patti Phillips Dutton says, “I forget about kids, house, bills, etc., while I’m on the floor.”
In a similar vein, having a good workout on a regular schedule can do a lot to improve your energy levels. Part of this comes from an increased blood flow to your body and a healthier cardiovascular system, meaning your blood moves oxygen to your body more efficiently, resulting in higher energy levels. In addition, regular exercise helps you sleep at night, so you can be even more refreshed during the day. Even though the science behind this is well known, many beginning martial artists are surprised when it happens to them.
3. Peacefulness and mental balance
You know the stereotype of the ancient martial arts master who never gets riled up, but calmly deflects the protagonist’s antics? Well, you don’t need to be a master to get this benefit from martial arts training. Martial artists of all levels report calmness and an inner fortitude against stressful situations. Mary Collins describes this as “a sense of peace and harmony,” adding that because of her training, she is “less likely to allow things to become stressful.” Dutton echoes her sentiment, saying that because of her training, “I am less likely to lose my temper.”
4. Overcoming unhealthy habits
Discipline and self-control are lauded as great reasons for children to participate in martial arts, but adults often experience similar benefits. It’s not unusual for a martial artist to credit his or her training with being able to finally quit smoking, recover from substance abuse, or eat healthier. Dakota, who has asked to withhold his last name, describes how he finally achieved sobriety by saying, “Karate gave me a focus point and a healthy alternative to drinking alcohol. I haven’t consumed alcohol in over 2.5 years.”
Confidence is a very common benefit of martial arts training, and it takes many forms. Some people overcome shyness, and others just learn to carry themselves with more presence or authority. Nathan Kirk, who began training in taekwondo as a young adult, explains that even though he has never been shy, he still had to learn to perform without being self-conscious. He says, “I could always be the class clown, or be in front of others, but if I wanted to present my honest best, there was a concern people might see the faults. What I developed through martial arts was a balance of humility and confidence. I accepted my imperfect performance without feeling the need to joke or apologize or highlight it in a self-deprecating way.”
6. A healthier relationship with your body
Many people experience a connection between their minds and bodies when they begin martial arts training. It usually begins with an awareness of the body that comes from learning new things—you have to pay attention to your body in order to learn a new physical skill. As training continues, people tend to notice that when the body is well taken care of, there is a corresponding boost in mental areas such as creativity, patience, and energy. But it can be much deeper than just an awareness of the symbiosis between the mind and the body. Karate stylist Alexandrea Kristiansen recalls a dramatic change after training for only a few months. She says, “It was the first time I ever connected with my body in a way that wasn’t about vanity. I no longer want to eat healthy and work out to be skinny and beautiful, but rather to be strong to perform karate well! It changed my whole way of thinking.”
7. Improved mental health
For people struggling with mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, professionals will often recommend regular exercise to help with their symptoms. Especially for those battling depression, having a supportive community at the training hall can also go a long way. Internationally famous karate expert Iain Abernethy credits his training with recovering from depression. Rachelle Lawrence says, “Karate has done more for my anxiety than anything else!” Jeff Gortney, who has been training for a year and a half, says, “There are huge mental health benefits. No matter how I felt emotionally before training, I always felt better afterwards.”
8. Better balance
Balance is usually associated with softer arts like tai chi, but training in any martial art can help. Arts that train sweeps and throws tend to be especially effective for improving balance, as are styles with a heavy focus on kicking.
9. Making deliberate choices
In the words of Uncle Ben and others, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But what Spiderman learned the hard way, martial artists can get from regular training. If you learn to turn your body into a weapon, you also have to learn the self-control to not use that weapon lightly. But that self-control can help in all areas of your life. Debbie Scofield, who started training at age 44, explains, “I’ve become more conscious of my decisions. When I have down time, it’s not habit but a decision now. If I eat ice cream, for example, I don’t do it mindlessly, but by choice. I’m more aware on every level.”
10. Improved reflexes and coordination
Most beginning martial artists expect to drop some weight, improve cardiovascular health, and build strength, but many are surprised the first time they catch the soap they drop in the shower. While that’s a somewhat silly example, having that coordination and the faster reflexes can help in many areas of life, from playing sports to driving more safely.
It’s not unusual to see someone take up marital arts and then suddenly make significant progress in a goal they’ve had for years, such as quitting smoking or eating healthier. It can happen for a lot of reasons, but one common reason is because their training provides some extra motivation. Susan Briggs had this kind of experience early in her training when she realized how much her smoking was affecting her progress. She recalls, “When I got to purple belt and wanted to continue I found the motivation to successfully give up smoking!” She has been smoke-free for four years now.
12. Career gains
Sometimes the added confidence, self-discipline, stress relief, and increased energy can add up to huge benefits at home or in the workplace. Karate instructor Barbara Lamble has experienced this both for herself and with her students. She says, “I’ve noticed that my professional career has had a similar trajectory as my karate career. For example, [each black belt] ranking has corresponded with a significant promotion at work. The two disciplines are not connected, but I think that the sense of focus and purpose while training has helped me progress in the workplace. I’ve seen it among my students as well.”
It’s hard to explain the bond that forms between martial artists. If you can throw punches at each other one moment and laugh about it the next, you’ve experienced something that few outside of the martial arts will ever understand. Martial arts friendships are really something special. Some even go so far as to call it a second family. Jamie Warren values the breadth of friends he has met through training, saying, “I met friends through martial arts who I would have never met otherwise.”
14. Family closeness
Martial arts is one of few physical activities that transcends age groups and can be practiced with the whole family. After all, parents usually aren’t allowed to join Little League teams with their kids. Since many styles can be practiced well into old age, you can have three generations in one family all taking lessons together. Michael Wroe was 49 years old when he began training. He recalls, “My two daughters and myself started at the same time and one daughter still trains with me. I feel it has kept us close. I now have more confidence, less fear, more fitness, more flexibility and a close relationship with my daughter.”
It’s great to experience a huge onslaught of physical, mental and social benefits, but at the end of the day, training should be fun. Bill Leake was pleasantly surprised when he started training. He says now, “It’s more fun than I expected.” Others come in already expecting a great experience, and are not disappointed. Jonna Hausser Weaver sums it up nicely: “It is just so much fun to do.”
These are just a few of the common benefits that surprise beginning martial artists, but there are tons more. Leave a comment with your story of what martial arts training has done for you!