If you’re looking for a way to get fit, reduce stress, improve your focus, and lower your risk of certain diseases, you may want to consider martial arts.
Many of us don’t even think of martial arts as we’re choosing a fitness activity – or, if we do think about it, we often dismiss the idea as not for us, thinking we are either “too old”, “too frail”, or it seems “too complicated.”
The reality, however, is that almost anyone can do some form of martial arts, and the health benefits make it worth leaving your comfort zone. It’s an effective way to burn calories, build muscle, and shed pounds. And it promotes balance and psychological well-being. There’s also some data that suggests that the combination of physical and mental in martial arts may even help persons with autism spectrum disorder improve their balance and communication.
I spent some time talking with my good friend and martial arts expert Michael Jai White about the benefits of martial arts. You probably know Michael from his roles in movies like Spawn and The Dark Knight; in the martial arts world, he’s known as a highly skilled and versatile artist – with black belts in eight different styles. Here are some of his thoughts on the intersection between martial arts and wellness.
Practicing the martial arts has such a wide variety of health benefits. From your experience, what is the most significant gift that the martial arts can give us, health-wise?
There are a lot of physical benefits, but to me, it’s the psychological benefits that make the martial arts so special – especially the way that it teaches you to overcome obstacles. When you practice the martial arts, you get more obstacles thrown at you than life would conjure up naturally, so your mind and will becomes well-equipped to mentally and physically face any obstacle life throws at you. Discipline, respect for others, being humble, truthful, healthy – they’re all part of being a true martial artist. For me, learning these qualities – and practicing them time and time again in the dojo – has not only improved my life and how I see myself, it’s also made me a better person for my family and everyone around me.
There are so many different types of martial arts – I think some people get overwhelmed by the choices. Can you break down some of the main forms and the specific kinds of benefits they offer?
While all of the martial arts improve your health through rigorous physical activity, there are some that focus more on internal factors. The traditional Chinese martial arts, like Ta Chi, focus on deep breathing and an overall balance of mind, body, and spirit. Most of the Chinese Kung Fu systems share these aspects and can be compared to yoga and ballet in terms of core strength, flexibility, and beautiful body mechanics. These can forms of martial arts be practiced safely well into later life.
If you want something more rigorous, you might like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which has recently enjoyed increased popularity. Jui Jitsu tends to appeal to the cerebral-minded practitioner in its strategic and chess-like aspects of trapping, capturing, and submitting one’s opponents.
Okinawan Karate and the Japanese and Korean martial arts have a more rigid and combative base to their systems. The most popular of these are Goju, Shotokan, and Tae Kwon Do, which emphasize destructive striking techniques. These arts, as well as countless offshoots of these striking styles, are unparalleled in terms of stress reduction. To punch, kick, yell (“Kiai!”), and fight is like a controlled version of a tantrum that you get to release on a consistent basis through training.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the martial arts?
People mistakenly associate the martial arts with brutality. I understand why – if you’re outside of the true martial arts world, it’s easy to get the wrong idea when the media, as well as many “fighters” who use martial arts techniques, emphasize brutality as a virtue. In reality, though, the real backbone of martial arts is the principle of humility. Growing up, I was praised by my teachers for my God-given physical fighting abilities; eventually, I realized that the other students who had to work harder than I were actually the ones who should’ve received the praise – their hard work and determination strengthened their core discipline and got them closer to what the martials arts is really all about.
Let’s talk about getting started with martial arts. We know that Tai Chi helps seniors, so I'm assuming that Tai Chi, at least, can be started at any stage in life. But what about other types of martial arts - are there any that are better for late starters than others?
I’m asked constantly if there’s an age that might be too late to begin martial arts. I answer with: Is there an age where discipline isn’t an asset? Discipline is the building block to any success in life and no matter what age you are, you can become better in your thinking, health, and defense of yourself. The trick is to take your time and try your best in whichever form you choose. There are some, like Tai Chi, that have no battle aspects, you don’t need to worry about fight-related injuries – but you also don’t get the fight-related skill gained in its practice.
What should someone new to martial arts look for in a studio or instructor?
In my opinion, you should look for a martial arts school that has ties to a larger, “parent” organization. In today’s climate there are many instructors who are power-hungry and ego-driven, eager to gain student/worshipers. They become the gods of their own styles, answer to no one, and are the very best salespeople in the business. But with a nationally- or internationally-affiliated school, there’s a hierarchy in place with checks and balances to assure the curriculum meets the standards of a unifying, governing body. I’d tell potential new students to watch out for instructors who are well versed in salesmanship – the truth is, the very best teachers are so humble they’d barely say anything.
Another telltale sign is the attitude and demeanor of the other students. Are they focused, neat, respectful, exceptional in their movements? Or are they fidgety, disorganized, or looking around? Is the main instructor in good physical shape? Do they workout with the class to provide a premium example for the students or do they instruct from the sidelines and have a senior student demonstrate for the rest of the class? If the instructor adheres to the martial arts principles of discipline, honor, respect, humbleness, and health, then the students will reflect those attributes as well – and that’s the real beauty of martial arts.
If you’re interested in incorporating a type of martial arts into your fitness or wellness routine, talk to your doctor about which discipline might be right for you.
Michael Jai White is an American actor and martial artist. He began his training in the martial arts at age eight and went on to earn black belts in eight different styles. Among White’s extensive list of film and TV credits, his lead role in Spawn made him the first African American to portray a major comic book superhero. His latest film, Dragged Across Concrete, is due for release this month. To keep up with Michael Jai White, follow him on twitter.