On 8 January, 2015
Martial arts is a general term usually given to ancient forms of combative techniques developed in Eastern cultures with underlying principles of self-discovery and self-improvement [8,9]. The ultimate aim of training in traditional martial arts was to aspire to live by a set of core beliefs and values including courage, loyalty, honour, self-control and justice . Martial arts today are usually modified for modern sport and exercise; however some still have their emphasis on the core values.
Sadly violence is seen as an increasing aspect of modern-day life , with some still perceiving the martial arts as simply dangerous and violent, encouraging children to be unnecessarily aggressive. This mean that the many benefits of children’s involvement in martial arts training can remain unclear. The media have been accused of creating a distorted image of martial arts for commercial and entertainment purposes , further fuelling a negative image of them, however, despite this, participation in martial arts is increasing, particularly for youth . As martial arts can provide a fun source of physical activity and contribute to the adoption of a healthy lifestyle , some of the many benefits of regular martial arts training can now be highlighted.
The umbrella term of martial arts covers a very wide range of activities which are usually simply grouped together in research. This makes it very difficult to appreciate the impact specific styles of training can have, so this article will use examples from different martial arts to try and illustrate the benefits of many differing styles.
Why is exercise important for children?
Regular participation in physical activity is vital for the healthy development of children and essential in preventing chronic disorders in later life . Children who regularly participate in physical activity and sports are less prone to suffer from cardiovascular risk factors which include type 2 diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure . With today's youth facing unprecedented levels of childhood obesity  and with cardiovascular disease being responsible for more deaths in the UK every year than any other disease , implementing effective physical activity programs and offering children a choice of fun and interesting activities to reduce these risk factors has never been more essential.
Regular participation in physical activity has not only been shown to improve physical health, but has also been linked to many psychological benefits including improvements in overall mental health, self-confidence, cognitive ability and depression . Performing physical activity at least three times a week, at an moderate to-vigorous intensity, for an accumulation of 60 minutes, involving continued, rhythmic and aerobic movements of large muscle groups is essential to producing the positive health-related benefits noted above . There are many sports and activities available for children to chose from with martial arts being an increasingly common one. The practice of martial arts is enjoyed by millions of practitioners worldwide and can offer one way for children to achieve the meaningful and health-promoting amount of exercise mentioned above . This article will aim to outline some of the benefits of martial arts training for children and adolescents in particular.
Benefits of martial arts training
Broadly speaking, the outcomes of martial arts training can be classified into two domains:
- Physical (i.e., physical skill and psychological effects related to physical appearance and ability)
- Psychological (i.e., generalized psychological benefits) .
The majority of studies into the practise of martial arts have consistently shown improvements in the physical condition of those who practise over that of people who do not , which holds true for many different martial arts styles.
To take just two examples, Judo improves flexibility, posture, co-ordination, mental reaction time and balance and was even shown to be better than dance at developing balance control , whilst regular training in Tai Chi resulted in lower extremity strengthening, improved postural stability, reductions in blood pressure and balance improvements . Overall improvements to an individual's health through martial arts training have been noted to include improvements in energy levels, balance, posture, co-ordination, flexibility, blood pressure, strength, fitness, overall health and a decrease in both emotional and physical ailments [7,8,15].
From a psychological viewpoint, the majority of research indicates that those who participate in any kind of martial art perceive their overall health-related quality of life and psychological well-being to be better than those in the general population . There is an increasing wealth of research looking at the impact martial arts training can have on children and adolescents in particular, with the results demonstrating it can lead to a reduced involvement in violent behaviour, an increase in pro-social behaviour, increases in commitment and emotional control, lower levels of anxiety and increases in independence and warm-heartedness [6,17]. The character training inherent in traditional martial arts, encourages an individual to become more self-aware and actively pursue character growth through the constant evaluation of thoughts and actions  fuelling the above noted improvements.
Impact on Aggression and Behaviour
With the evidence of the positive physical and psychological benefits of martial arts training growing, some people still perceive martial arts training as enhancing aggression and encouraging violence. This thought process is in juxtaposition to the teachings of most martial arts and in contrast to the findings in the research that note martial arts training actually produces lower levels of aggression . Training in the traditional martial arts focuses on the ability to not respond emotionally to predatory forms of aggression and to understand why and when combat should end once the goal of self-defence has been achieved, and therefore can be geared toward the avoidance of, rather than the indulgence in violent encounters .
A six-month traditional martial arts training program was utilised with a group of aggressive male adolescents and resulted in increases in self-esteem, decreases in self-reported aggression and anxiety with these improvements maintained even a year after the program had finished . In fact, aggression continues to reduce as the time spent in regular martial arts training increases  and as such, martial arts training as a whole is now a popular method of intervention for changing students’ aggressive behaviours and attitudes toward aggression . Children training regularly in traditional Judo reported a decline in aggressiveness as well as reductions in reckless, maladaptive behaviour and experienced a channelling of anxiety and violence into more adaptive energy . As Judo is practiced with a partner, it also helped to develop a deep understanding of companionship and respect .
Taking another example, Capieora, a Martial Art from Brazil that incorporates regimens of kicks and acrobatics , does not focus on winning or losing, but developing an environment to better oneself and not allowing anger to take over and lead to aggression .
It would be naive not to mention that involvement in martial arts training can expose participants to a risk of injury , and a long standing argument against the involvement of children in martial arts training has focused around the perception that martial arts have a high injury rate. Injuries can occur when participating in any physical activity, especially any contact related activities, however the main point taken from the literature has been that injuries sustained through martial arts training were noted as being minor in comparison to other sports and training in the martial arts has been considered safe in comparison to other sports including football and basketball .
Martial Arts in Schools
Martial arts can provide children and adolescents with a meaningful leisure activity, bring structure to their life, give them means for self-control and provide opportunities for social contacts, acquisition of social skills and respect for authority and rules . It would seem that many of these themes parallel those taught in mainstream education, in fact the positive benefits of martial arts training with children is being further illustrated by its increasing use by teachers and youth welfare workers . A study among member countries of the European Physical Education Association (EUPEA) indicated that in the majority of countries, martial arts are used in physical education (PE) classes in secondary schools as they provide positive educational opportunities to pupils . Traditional martial arts–based programs, based on the concepts of self-control, respect, and nonviolence, have been utilised in a school setting and were shown to help schools address the issue of bullying whilst also meeting demands for physical education curricula .
Martial arts have been noted as being able to improve the PE curriculum, as they encourage children to exercise in a fun and different way at a moderate-vigorous intensity level, improve the quality of PE classes and help schools meet physical activity guidelines . One such school programme focused on self-protective techniques including blocking, escapes, defensive positioning, and balance and led to a decrease in aggression, changes in helpful bystander behaviour and increased self-esteem and self-confidence . Using another example, a three-month school based Tae Kwon Do programme showed pupils experienced increases in cognitive self-regulation, pro-social behaviour, classroom conduct, and performance on a mental maths test again highlighting the potential benefits of martial arts for children and adolescents .
The benefits of martial arts programs do not simply hold true for the general population, in fact, a programme using school aged children assigned Karate kata (movements incorporating blocking, punching, sticking, and kicking techniques in certain set sequences) to pupils with varying autism spectrum disorders for 14 weeks to assess the effects. It was shown that regular Karate kata training significantly improved social dysfunction which was still improved at one month after the intervention .
There is strong evidence that martial arts are a good form of exercise for children, and can help to teach them discipline, control, and respect . The above points highlight just some of the numerous benefits brought about by the participation of children and adolescents in traditional martial arts, with numerous studies showing that regular martial arts training can lead to improvements in both the physical and emotional health of children. The implementation of martial arts programs in school settings further supports its inherently positive teachings and outcomes.
The conclusion drawn from looking at the literature is that children and adolescents can improve both their physical and emotional wellbeing through regular participation in martial arts training and that martial arts offer a fun, exciting and relatively safe environment for children to attain the recommended physical activity vital to ensuring their health.
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Written by: Catherine Payne, The Mid Sussex Martial Arts School - Website.