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Martial Arts As Preventive Medicine

By Richard Hackworth, Ph.D., Lac.

 
Martial arts training at peak performance levels is the best way to prevent disease, as well as to stimulate positive changes in the body's natural healing systems.


Our current lifestyle of Lazy-boy chairs, remote controls and S.U.V.s does not challenge us to move,  yet our biological need for physical movement is still the same as when time began. Martial arts training can strongly influence the function of most of the human organ systems and much of the chemistry of our brains and bodies. The changes brought about by martial arts training are dose responsive, but maybe not in the way you believe. In fact, twice as much is twice as good only up to optimal levels. Beyond that actually tempts an over training response in the body and a decline in physical and mental health. Martial arts training, as well as other exercise forms, dosage combines distance (or time), intensity and frequency -- how far, how fast, how often. An additional factor may be technique, which determines the muscle groups and total muscle mass used in the exercise. For example, kicks work your leg muscles but also increase aerobic capacity. Taking into consideration the type and dosage of martial arts training, it affects the body and its systems in numerous positive ways.
 

Typical types of martial arts training

Martial arts training movements are generally classified as aerobic (kicking or forms training) like in Taekwondo, strength or stretching as done in Yudo. Two more categories can also be added: Martial art exercises of skill and exercises for fun. Some martial arts exercises/sports are, of course, multidimensional. Of the five categories, only the martial arts cardiovascular or aerobic group changes metabolism and chemistry in enough ways to bring about a wide range of health gains in the martial arts practitioner.

The definition of aerobic exercise is straightforward: sustained, rhythmic use of large muscle groups in a weight-bearing manner at sufficient frequency, distance and intensity. Other than martial arts, the qualifiers include running, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, skating, aerobic walking and a few others. Frequency is three to four times a week. Distance, most easily measured in time, is 40 to 50 minutes. As to intensity, the workout must feel like a workout -- 13 to 14 on the Borg scale of perceived exertion. If you are just starting a training program, begin with a shorter time and lower intensity, gradually working up to target levels. The long-term benefits of such training can be seen in such notable martial artists as Taekwondo icon Jhoon Rhee, creator of martial ballet and Korean Ki Master Seok Kyu Lee, founder of ShimKiDo. These individuals have physiques comparable to men 30 to 40 years their junior because of a lifetime devotion to proper martial arts training.
 

Positive body changes

After about three weeks of true martial arts training, a wide range of physiological changes take place. Practitioners will exhibit improvements in blood sugar, blood pressures, blood lipids, brain neurotransmitter balance, blood supply to muscles, and capacity of somatic muscles and the liver to store carbohydrate in the form of glycogen, calcium metabolism and other basic parameters. The changes are not mutually exclusive; interactions among systems and their functions are the rule.

These changes translate into better functioning of the body and brain, and overall risk reduction for such diseases as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, chronic respiratory disease, osteoporosis, obesity, anxiety states, mild to moderate mental depression, chronic fatigue, and breast and colon cancers. An increase in breathing exercises and forms training helped me recover from type 2 diabetes and I am no longer insulin dependent because of it.

The brain and nervous system.

 Martial arts training brings about remarkable changes in brain chemistry. The concentrations of various neurotransmitters that are responsible for facilitation or inhibition of nerve impulse transmission in the central nervous system -- acetylcholine, norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), glutamic acid, endorphins and others -- are changed so that a new balance is attained. The clinical signs and symptoms that ensue are easier to record than the actual neurotransmitter levels, and many studies are in agreement on the emotional, behavioral and physiological changes that accompany martial arts training. A few recent investigations, however, have pinned down the neurochemical changes, as well. Eighty-nine year old Grand Master Yong Woo Lee, founder of JungDoKwan Taekwondo credits his years of martial arts training for his good health and mental sharpness at his age.

Among the early changes seen when individuals engage in a martial arts training program are mood elevation, heightened energy levels, enhanced self-confidence and self-esteem, lower anxiety levels, resistance to depression and improved coping ability. Changes in blood pressure and heart rate, which are, to a large extent, mediated by the central nervous system, occur soon afterward. Heart rate is slowed, and hypertensive blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) is reduced toward normal. Hapkido Grand Master Gary Pointer says: "Martial arts training keeps me going strong with a smile on my face! It is the ultimate mental and physical health program."

These physiological changes are a function of the rebalancing of the sympathetic (fight and flight) and parasympathetic (rest and repair) halves of the autonomic nervous system. Studies by the Inchon Sports College of Korea have found increased parasympathetic tone in martial arts trained subjects, and ascribe the slowing of heart rate and reduction in blood pressure to this increased tone. Others have recorded lower plasma catecholamine levels associated with lower blood pressure following martial arts training. Resting heart rate is largely controlled by the parasympathetic fibers of the tenth cranial nerve (vagus) to the heart's pacemaker (SA node). But blood pressure is much more complex, and more body chemistry, especially hormonal chemistry, is involved. The bottom line is that martial arts training reduces hypertensive blood pressure, and that the response is distance/intensity-graded.

Returning to the neurotransmitter connections with training, higher levels of serotonin and dopamine have been recorded following intense martial arts training. These would account for the mood elevation and antidepressant effects equal to those of regular aerobic exercise. Keep in mind that changes in GABA, endorphins and other neurotransmitters may well contribute to these psychological effects. There have been improvements in the physical capabilities of Parkinson's disease patients following six to eight weeks of martial arts training. (Dopamine levels are commonly low in people with Parkinson's disease.) In one patient, a 69-year-old Korean female, Soo Yong Kim of Shi-Hung City, anti-Parkinson medication was discontinued after martial arts training greatly improved her aerobic capacity while training at the JaeIl JaeYook Kwan school owned by ChungDoKwan Grand Master Jong Song Kim.

Also related to dopamine changes, some cigarette smokers can quit with few, if any, signs and symptoms of withdrawal. Ordinarily, nicotine addiction is difficult to break because high dopamine levels drop precipitously upon smoking cessation. Rigorous martial arts training can greatly elevate dopamine levels, and cases of smokers who quit easily may be taken as initial evidence that optimal levels of martial arts training can prevent a drop in dopamine with smoking cessation.

Continuing in the realm of psychological effects, a number of cognitive improvements have been documented in older adults who train rigorously. These include quicker mental reaction time and improved fluid intelligence quotients. Incredibly, Jae Son Myung (101 years old) of Inchon, Korea credits his sharp mental focus and quick reaction ability to his 90 years of classical Yudo training. It has been proposed that such changes may be the result of improved acetylcholine levels. Acetylcholine is a universal nerve transmission chemical in both the brain and somatic nerves. If acetylcholine is responsible, martial arts exercise should also benefit Alzheimer's disease, which exhibits chronic acetylcholine depletion.

At the base of the brain is the small pineal gland, which releases melatonin, a hormone that influences such widely diverse functions as sleep/wake cycles and immune system integrity. The production of melatonin, related chemically to serotonin, is upset when people travel across several time zones. A marked reduction in jet lag can be achieved when a martial artist's training schedule is optimal for frequency, distance and intensity.

Thyroid and parathyroid glands.

The next stop in the body is the neck, where the thyroid and parathyroid glands are located. The thyroid controls metabolic rate, and the parathyroid are involved in calcium metabolism. Metabolic rate is influenced by any exercise form with an aerobic component such as Taekwondo foot-work drills, and calcium metabolism by both cardiovascular and strength training exercises.

Lungs. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) results from years of exposure to particulate and chemical pollutants in the air. The result is breathlessness (dyspnea) with mild to moderate physical exertion, and reduced functional respiratory volume. There is less elasticity of the air sacs and of the entire chest wall. Rigorous martial arts training such as Hapkido falling and tumbling drills results in less dyspnea and increased respiratory capacity.

Another chronic respiratory disease is asthma, but asthma, with its three components of allergy, inflammation and anxiety, is more complex. Asthma is characterized by constriction of the bronchioles, the smallest tubular passages before the air sacs, and expiratory wheezing. Asthmatic distress has been widely noted in exercises of shorter duration and higher intensity. Former asthma sufferer Master Mi Yi says that her poor health and breathing problems as a child is what convinced her parents to let her attend martial arts classes. "They didn't think it was lady-like" says Master Yi. "But I told them that being sick all the time wasn't lady-like either, so they allowed me to go to Taekwondo and Kumdo classes with my brother."

Occasional asthmatic individuals on medication have participated in TaeGukKwan forms and Ki-Kong training programs I have instructed. I have observed the medical progress of eight such individuals as they reached and maintained improved cardiovascular levels of exercise. Without exception, they reported reduced incidence and severity of symptoms, and less need for bronchodilator medication.

Heart and blood vessels. The working muscle of the heart, the myocardium, is structurally and functionally different than the voluntary muscles used for movement. Heart muscle looks different under a microscope, uses a different mix of biochemical energy cycles and responds to exercise differently. One thing that the myocardial and somatic muscles have in common in response to Kardio Kickbox exercise is an increased blood supply. Even in coronary heart disease, where one (or more) of the coronary arteries is partly blocked by lipid deposits, Kardio Kickbox class, in combination with a low-fat diet, results in increased opening of the blocked vessel(s).

Without going into what is known about the complex biological mechanisms involved, here are some heart benefits of optimal levels of martial arts training: regularity of heart beat at a slower rate; improvement of blood lipid factors (decreased total cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins and triglycerides, and increased high-density lipoproteins); diminished atherosclerosis of coronary and carotid arteries; increased stroke volume; greater total blood volume with decreased viscosity; decreased platelet aggregability; and increased blood flow to cardiac and somatic musculature on physical effort.

Gastrointestinal tract. For the gastrointestinal tract, exercise shortens transit time for food as it enters the stomach and then passes through the colon and rectum. The reduced incidence of colon cancer is doubtless a consequence of decreased transit time, combined with increased immune system competence.

Liver. The liver, in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, serves several functions, including participation in the regulation of carbohydrate metabolism. Foods digested in the small intestine -- carbohydrates, fats and proteins -- are absorbed by a network of veins and carried to the liver. When the liver receives a fresh supply of carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars, it has a few choices. It can (and generally does) release some glucose into circulation, it can store some as glycogen and/or it can convert a generous amount to fat for storage. The capacity for the storage of liver glycogen is greatly increased in martial arts practitioners.

Pancreas. Just across from the liver is the pancreas, which functions as a digestive organ supplying enzymes to the small intestine, and as an endocrine organ with its specialized islet cells, which produce the hormones insulin and glucagon. Insulin can activate receptors in all cells of the body to metabolize glucose; glucagon, conversely, acts to release glucose from glycogen storage. Martial arts training increases sensitivity in insulin receptors throughout the body.

Adrenal glands. A little lower in the abdomen are the paired adrenal glands, one atop each kidney. The adrenals are the source of two classes of hormones, the gluco- and mineralo-corticoids. The former, or cortisol group, can be released in response to stress -- physical, chemical, bacterial, viral, radiation and intensive exercise. Long-term stress may result in chronic, high levels of cortisol, followed by depletion, resulting in lowered resistance to infection. Adequate, but not excessive, aerobic exercise training keeps resistance levels high, and hastens recovery from injury or illness. The adrenals and the kidneys have a strong hand in blood pressure regulation, and martial arts exercises, such as the DanJun HoHup Breathing drills of Hapkido made famous by Grand Master Ji Han Jae, is known to reduce hypertensive blood pressure.

Mid-body muscles. Conditioning exercises such as Hapkido kicking drills and weapons drills improve the tone of three muscle groups: the pelvic-support muscles, the lower-back muscles and the gluteal muscles that splint the neck of the femur. Three disparate conditions, incontinence (especially in older women), chronic low-back pain and the risk of "hip" fracture, are thus improved.

Calcium metabolism. Exercise also improves the body as a whole. Calcium metabolism, a complex balance of many influences, is improved by martial arts strength and cardio training. In women young enough to have adequate estrogen levels, both types of exercise increase bone mineral density. In post-menopausal women, such exercise will inhibit the bone density decline that commonly occurs with passing years.

Connective tissue. Another whole-body effect is on connective tissue, since martial arts training creates more physiologically active fibroblasts and a more youthful balance of collagen and elastin fibers.

Body fat. Still another whole-body influence of rigorous martial arts exercise such as Taekwondo forms training is the strong effect on body fat percentage. Optimal levels of Kardio Karate training have consistently resulted in a lowering of fat-to-lean ratios. The Kardio Karate Program promoted by NAPMA (National Association of Professional Martial Artists) and Billy Blanks "TaeBo" have been instrumental in popularizing this type of training. Many people think of whether they are too fat in terms of weight, but the effect of Kardio Karate style exercise is on fat storage, rather than on weight, per se. Individuals who are relatively lean before starting an exercise program often report losing inches (thighs, waist, hips, waist, chest, upper arms) without change in weight.

Kardio Karate exercise does not bring about its fat-loss effect merely by caloric expenditure. It also involves multiple biochemical changes, including changes in lipoprotein lipase, brain cholecystokinin, glucocorticosteroids, leptin, c-reactive protein and other peptides, as well as an increase in resting metabolic rate.

Immune system. Another generalized effect of martial arts forms training such as the maximum physical fitness form of Yudo is on the immune system. This type of exercise affects both the cellular and humoral processes of this complex defense system. Different changes occur during a workout, after a workout and long term, if forms exercise is practiced on a regular basis. New balances are achieved among the various immune mechanisms and chemicals.

The immune system reacts differently depending on whether the exercise is at optimal aerobic levels, exhaustive distance and intensity, or at over training levels. The overall effect of exercise on the many components of the immune system can be judged by the clinical picture. That bottom line is that ideal levels of aerobic exercise translates into greater resistance to infection (bacterial and viral) and to lower risk for breast cancer and colon cancer. An indirect path to these benefits is the increased ability to tolerate stressors. Over training -- generally acknowledged as more than 90 minutes at a hard pace for one exercise bout, or 35 miles (or equivalent) per week at workout pace -- can result in an opposite effect. Over training, like chronic stress, results in a reduction in immune system competence.

Martial Arts training as medicine

Martial arts training affects the great majority of the body's tissues, organs and systems to bring about homeostatic stability and normal function. Training at optimal levels of frequency, distance (time) and intensity can markedly reduce the risk of developing many of the chronic diseases commonly seen. As such, the public health implications of establishing widespread martial arts programs are important for society as a whole.
 

About the author: Multi-arts Grand Master Richard Hackworth is the owner of the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies school in Ocoee, Florida and Co-author of the "Martial Arts Profits & Success Manual" and the "Authentic Korean Hapkido Manual". Hackworth is the International Chapter President of the Korean Martial Arts Instructors Association. He can be reached at www.kmaia-usa.org or drhackworth@earthlink.net.