Martial arts: From killing art to wellness and fitness

Sometimes looking into the past sheds light on our current concepts and even future performance. Take for instance martial arts. Most would not associate current day wellness to the practice of martial arts (more commonly referred to as karate), especially considering the history of martial arts. Oh, but grasshopper, remember what is new is old.

The practice of martial arts goes back 2,000 years, when Shaolin monks developed a specific form of self-defense using their hands, feet and often a staff. Eventually martial arts became a mainstay of Chinese military training. The devoted further developed the art, training for not only the physical but also positive mental side effects.

It really was not until our generation that karate was accepted as a form of wellness. Today, there are millions of martial arts practitioners in the United States and around the world. In fact, Philadelphia just hosted the International Traditional Tang Soo Do Tournament at the Lowes Hotel on July 4-5.

Martial arts training is incorporated in the first 7 out of 8 current training trends as reported by US News and World Report in its January 2014 issue. For example, high intensity interval training, body weight training, group personal training and educated, certified fitness instructors (One word defines this: “Master”). 

As a physical therapist, I see how a sedentary lifestyle, aging without activity, and obesity ravage the body. I see elderly individuals lose their confidence in moving because they don’t “practice” it. The old adage of “if you don’t use it, you lose it” is so true as applied to movement.

Karate trains the body to move in a stable functional manner while strengthening the core and lower extremity muscles. Through karate, balance and flexibility are improved, confidence boosted and life enhanced.

Those who practice martial arts can also count on increased core strength. And what is bigger than core training? Nothing. The pelvic and core musculature are essential to all karate movement and forms.  Every stance, block and punch is first initiated through the core. Therefore, each movement works the core.

If you are an athlete or just love fitness, supplementing your workouts with karate could bring you to the next level. Many sports are unidirectional, but karate’s versatile movement patterns require a constant change in direction and energy. All movement starts at core and when you learn to control the “tungen” (energy), overall performance improves.

If you choose karate as your path to fitness and are innately flexible, there is no question that you will literally have a leg up. However, if your tissue pliability is just above rigor mortis, there is still hope. Through repetitive static and dynamic stretching your connective tissue will remodel into a lengthened state and you will be astounded at your joint range.

There are some of you who are probably saying, “I am too old for karate” – that is nonsense. I was 53 when I started practicing with my then 16-year-old son. It may be true that my son is able to perform at a slightly higher level, but I still benefit from all that karate has to offer. And I will continue to benefit as I age.

Recently researchers found exercise improves memory. I can personally vouch that learning the different forms of karate is brain exercise as much as physical exercise.

Many martial artists use the Song of Sip Seh, also known as the Song of Thirteen Influences as a guide to understanding karate. One of the influences is “what is the purpose and philosophy of the martial arts- rejuvenation and prolonging of life beyond the normal span.” For those who are injured, it helps to heal and for those who are healthy, it trains the body to improve our quality of life for a longer period.

I find it interesting that martial arts and physical/occupational therapy have the same goals: Increase strength, increase flexibility or range of motion, enhance balance and function. I remember an elderly Chinese woman I treated following a proximal humerus fracture who after four months was improved but still had typical shoulder stiffness. She asked if she could return to her daily practice of Tai Chi. I asked her to show me what she would do. I often video-tape interesting patient cases — her case, I like to call “caterpillar to butterfly.” The stiffness she demonstrated in functional movement essentially disappeared in her Tai Chi form and was replaced by graceful motion. Of course, she was told to absolutely return to her Tai Chi practice.

Now Grasshopper, have I convinced you that karate ( be it Tang Soo Do, Tae Kwon Do, Tai Chi) is an “old” art form that encompasses all of the “new” wellness benefits, regardless of your age? If still in doubt, visit a traditional karate gym and just watch. Speak to the Master and some of the students and you will know if it is right for you.

Marty Kelley is an advanced clinician and site manager for Penn Therapy & Fitness at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. He is the past-president of the American Society of Shoulder and Elbow Therapists.

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