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Want better Mental Health? Do Martial Arts!

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week, where there is a sharper focus on mental health issues and an opportunity to think about how to support and promote better mental well-being for us all. Essentially, ‘good mental well-being’ relates to:

  • The sense of feeling good about ourselves and being able to function well individually or in relationships

  • The ability to deal with the ups and downs of life, such as coping with challenges and making the most of opportunities (having a positive mind-set and greater resilience)

  • The feeling of connection to our community and surroundings

  • Having control and freedom over our lives

  • Having a sense of purpose and feeling of self-worth and value


Why is the focus on mental health needed? Current statistics indicate a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression symptoms in the UK in the last decade, with around 1 in 6 adults experiencing depression and over 8 million people experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time (figures from Mental Health UK and the Office of National Statistics, 2023). Mental health statistics for under 18s are also at a worryingly high level. One in six children aged 5 to 16, for example, have been identified as having a probable mental health difficulty (approximately five children in every classroom), and 24% of 17-year-olds were reported to have self-harmed in the previous year (figures from Young Minds, 2022).


Can Exercise Help?

Advances in science and brain imaging (using MRI scanners) in recent decades have identified that doing physical activity can improve mental well-being. Thanks to research we know that exercise can have the following benefits (articulated in some of the earlier bogs this week):

  • Improved sleep - by making us feel more tired at the end of the day

  • Improved mood and self-esteem - physical activity releases ‘happy’ hormones (neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, and endorphins) in the brain, which also gives us more motivation and energy

  • Managing stress and anxiety - doing something physical interrupts intrusive or negative thoughts, and focuses concentration, as well as managing cortisol levels (the ‘stress’ hormone). Studies have shown physical activity can reduce anxiety levels in people with mild symptoms and may also help treat clinical anxiety.

  • Reducing the risk factors associated with depression

  • Less tension, stress and mental fatigue

  • A sense of achievement

  • Feeling less angry or frustrated


The positive effects of physical exercise, ranging from everyday movement (such as doing household chores) to vigorous cardio workouts is therefore well known, and there is a growing body of research which highlights many of the benefits listed above. How do martial arts fit into this picture, however? Do they offer anything different, or additional to some of the positive effects described above?


Martial Arts and Mental Well-Being

Specific studies have shown the advantages of martial arts disciplines on both physical and mental health, over and above the benefits associated with more generalised exercise. Recent articles published by the British Psychological Society outline a number of recent studies (since 2017) where additional benefits were noted among those practicing martial arts. Evidence suggests that the participants in the studies cited (all of whom accessed a martial art’s activity) experienced increased mental well-being in the following areas:


Community

Evidence found that group exercise offers more significant benefits than solo exercise, and that connecting with like-minded people (as part of a martial arts community) helps develop self-esteem and broaden our social circle (both of which benefit mental well-being and reduce feelings of isolation).


Resilience

Significant improvements in resilience and perseverance were found among martial arts students, in comparison to those (the ‘control group’) who accessed an alternative form of exercise. Findings suggest that a martial arts based intervention is therefore an “efficacious method of improving wellbeing outcomes including resilience and self-efficacy” (cited from Well-Being Warriors, A randomised controlled trial examining the effects of martial arts training on secondary students' resilience, Moore, Woodcock and Dudley, 2021, British Journal of Educational Psychology). In addition, people who practice martial arts often feel a greater sense of purpose, as they have a specific goal to aim for. This often leads to a feeling of peace with who they are and what they are working towards.


Reduced stress and anxiety

Martial arts were found to reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression, by focusing on aspects of breathing, encouraging deep meditation, and mindfulness, alongside the physical aspects of training. Martial arts, such as Tang Soo Do, can have repetitive and predictable movements (for example Hyung patterns, or specific drills) which help to build concentration and activate certain brain waves. This is especially helpful when trying to do multiple tasks that divide our attention. Studies have found that martial arts employ ‘Alpha Waves’ in the brain, where our neurological system goes into a state of ‘flow’. Some of the positive effects of boosting alpha waves include lowering stress, decreasing symptoms of depression, and improving creative thinking. In addition, studies have shown that any exercises which utilise “mind-body” exercises (where the brain and body work in collaboration) produced the greatest reductions in anxiety. Higher intensity physical activity was also associated with greater improvement for depression. Martial arts offer both a high intensity work out, as well as the use of mental processes to help guide the physical techniques. Our eight key concepts in Tang Soo Do, for example, summarise the synergy between our mind and body very succinctly.


Self-confidence and self-esteem

Studies have shown students practicing martial arts have greater self-confidence and assertiveness, with fewer aggressive tendencies. By learning self-defence techniques, marital arts students also increase levels of social confidence, and reduce their levels of cortisol (stress hormones) when in crisis or faced with a stressful event (reducing the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response). One study also found martial arts could be used to inform an anti-bullying approach and that a martial arts intervention could work towards helping individuals develop strengths and cope more effectively when experiencing bullying (Developing Wellbeing Through a Randomised Controlled Trial of a Martial Arts Based Intervention: An Alternative to the Anti-Bullying Approach (clinical trial, Moore, Woodcock and Dudley, 2018, International Journal of Environmental Public Health).


Mental Health Awareness Week helps to focus our attention and take stock of our own mental health, look after ourselves, as well as care for each other. One way to do that, is to come down to class, take part, and know that by doing Tang Soo Do, you are not only benefitting your physical health, but also promoting and improving your mental well-being in ways we hadn’t previously recognised.


As one of our recent Dan Candidates put it in their essay (What does Tang Soo Do mean to me?):

  • It gives me a sense of calm and concentration that I rarely find elsewhere in my life. I've tried explaining it to people, and usually what I say is that when you are in the middle of class, at that moment, you absolutely cannot think of anything else. No matter how big or stressful your problems are, for a while they just completely go away

  • In fact, in general, when people ask about why I do martial arts, my answer is that it's the single most helpful thing I ever discovered for my mental health. It is even more important to me than the physical side of things.


Dr Carol Plummer

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