For most people, the word karate conjures up images of martial arts flicks and Ralph Macchio’s famous tournament-winning Crane kick. But for those who practice the ancient discipline, it’s about so much more. “It’s a mind, body and spirit practice that brings benefits like fitness, mental discipline, and character development,” says Ryan Libel, executive director of Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self Defense Center in Chicago and a third degree black belt. “It is an art that supports and heals us and helps us grow as we navigate the normal ups and downs of life.”
Thanks to a growing body of research supporting karate’s potential to help those with a range of physical and emotional health concerns, individuals of all ages and abilities have a new reason to try the martial art.
Karate prevents bullying
From playground teasing and harassment to online rumor-spreading and abuse, more than 13 million youth will be bullied this year in the U.S., according to the nonprofit STOMP Out Bullying. The consequences are far-reaching; bullied kids more likely to experience depression, anxiety, loneliness, poor sleep, increased health complaints and compromised academic achievement.
But at karate dojos around the country, bullied youth are learning to fight back—peacefully, yet effectively—or even prevent bullying in the first place.
“Parents comes to us seeking a safe space to increase their children’s resiliency, develop strong boundaries, and learn how to stand up for themselves and others,” Libel says. All karate training at Thousand Waves weaves in elements of empowerment and self-defense, but it’s not just about the punches and kicks. In fact, bully-proofing a child “isn’t about the fight; it’s about the other things that come before it.”
For instance, students learn to adopt a strong, grounded “ready” stance; to make eye contact with an imaginary opponent; and to not be afraid to use their voice, whether it’s “Kiai!,” the spirited yell used to start every training to arouse energy and demonstrate a non-quitting spirit, or “Stop touching me!”; “Don’t call me that! I don’t like it” or “My friend can wear what he wants” in a bullying situation. Tools like these, Libel says, “are their superpowers, like a giant shield against teasing.”
Libel also points out that karate, and all martial arts for that matter, promotes a spirit of community, inclusion and respect. “We start in a line-up and always make sure there’s space for every child in line, space that every human deserves. We bow in and out of class, which helps teach kids to respect, and we talk a lot about using our karate as a force for good—that we need to be upstanders willing to speak up for victims of bullying, not bystanders, who remain silent.” Thousand Waves also makes a conscious effort to include, celebrate and train karateka (students) who are women, LGBTQ+, differently abled or members of other frequently bullied, at-risk communities.
When an Arizona State University doctoral student surveyed parents of children attending 22 martial arts schools across the country, as well as the children themselves, advanced students (those with a black belt) reported being bullied 42 percent less than the average child. “Earning a black belt led to reductions in bullying beyond that seen in school-based bullying reduction programs,” explains Greg Moody, PhD, a seventh degree black belt, owner of KarateBuilt, LLC, in Phoenix, Arizona, and author of the research. Martial arts student were also less likely to bully others.
Over 300 Martial Arts schools around the world have just pledged to teach free anti-bullying seminars in their communities.
Karate can ease anxiety and depression
In 2017, the only reason Angie Edwards spent time at nonprofit Sun Dragon Martial Arts and Self Defense in Austin, Texas, was because her then-10-year-old daughter trained there. One day, Edwards saw a video playing at the dojo in which the instructor said, “Karate helps you ask for what you need.” That spoke to Edwards; she had spent her life burying the secret of childhood sexual abuse, along with the anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she endured as a result.
“I’d begun experiencing panic attacks and had been using traditional counseling, art therapy and yoga trying to recover,” says Edwards, 41. The yoga had served her especially well, in terms of her anxiety, but she was ready to try something new—something that would bring her not just peace, but a sense of empowerment. She signed up on the spot.
Right away, karate’s emphasis on strong voice presented a challenge. “I had kept my abuse a secret, so it took me some time to feel comfortable shouting or yelling in class,” Edwards says. “At first, my kiais were small, quiet, and didn’t have much power behind them.” With time and practice, though, they began to come out strong, and with them comes “a release of energy that’s also calming and centering and brings me a sense of full agency of my body.”
Karate and other martial arts can serve as smart, strategic adjunct treatment options for individuals with depression and anxiety, not to mention social anxiety disorder, disordered eating and more, says Brad Stennerson, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Norman, Oklahoma, and a regular judo practitioner. “It improves self confidence, because you’re learning a new skill and feel assertive. That’s helpful for anxiety, in which we overestimate perceived threats and underestimate our own capabilities. Karate also forces you out of the house and into a community of people who support you, [which can aid in] depression, when we tend to isolate ourselves.” For individuals with social anxiety, the communal nature of class serves as a sort of exposure therapy, Stennerson adds.
A Frontiers in Psychology study of 45 older adults examined the mental health effect of 20 karate training sessions compared with basic physical exercise training or cognitive training (a program designed to enhance memory, logical reasoning and problem solving). Only the karate group demonstrated an improvement in emotional well-being.
Karate’s mindful nature and emphasis on focused, controlled movements leaves little room for mind wandering and rumination, helpful for anyone struggling with a mental health issue. “It forces you to be present,” Stennerson says. “Your thoughts aren’t in the future, as they often are with anxiety, or in the past, which we do when we ruminate over mistakes.”
Karate also provides a physical outlet, Libel notes, and the feel-good endorphins released during aerobic exercise have been shown to combat depression and anxiety.
Today, Edwards continues to practice four times a week. “I feel like I have new tools I can use. It’s helped my self-esteem, taught me self defense, and in situations with an unequal power dynamic, I now have this internal confidence that I didn’t have before.”
Karate may improve symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a debilitating neurodegenerative condition affecting nearly one million Americans, usually age 60 and older. While medications exist to treat the symptoms, which include hand tremor, limb stiffness and difficulty walking, none slow down the course of the disease, and no cure exists.
That said, exercise has been shown to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, and while yoga and walking have long been recognized for their ability to improve balance, core strength and endurance in PD patients, karate has recently begun kicking its way onto doctors’ radar as a helpful treatment. In 2018, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago enrolled 15 individuals with early to middle stage PD to take karate classes twice a week for 10 weeks. Neurologist and study principal investigator Jori Fleisher, MD, says subjects reported significant improvement in quality of life, including an easier time dressing and navigating in public; less depression; and better concentration.
“Parkinson’s makes things small—patients take tinier and tinier steps, their handwriting shrinks down, even their voice,” Fleisher says. “But practicing karate’s large movements, like punches, seems to help. In the first class, their jabs come out small, slow. By the end, they’re punching with more force and even hitting targets.” The balance developed in karate can also help reduce falls in PD patients.
In addition to physical improvements, Fleisher said individuals with PD can benefit from karate’s emphasis on kata, a series of coordinated offensive and defensive movements like kicks, punches and blocks, performed against an imaginary opponent and rehearsed over and over again. “Patients with Parkinson’s struggle with executive function—remembering what comes first, then next, in a series of events. Karate works on that by creating new patterns of movement.” And considering the fact that most patients develop their initial movement symptoms on one side of the body, katas help by working both the left and right sides, building needed strength and control.
Karate protects your bones
Aging and bone loss often go hand in hand; by 2020, at least one in two Americans over 50 will have or be at risk of developing osteoporosis. Women are especially vulnerable, thanks to the plummet in bone-protective estrogen that occurs during menopause.
Weight-bearing exercise like karate, though, can help build or maintain bone mass, says Carol Krucoff, author of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise, a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, and a second degree Black Belt in karate. First, bone grows stronger in response to having weight placed on it or resistance applied against it—a phenomenon not exclusive to karate; it occurs with walking, running, dancing, strength-training, yoga and more. (One illustrative example of this: Tennis players have denser bone mass in their dominant arm.)
But for older adults who are naturally more prone to falling, karate’s emphasis on kicks—front, side, roundhouse and more—promotes balance and agility, as you must stand on one leg while the other leg kids.
Karate also teaches the art of falling properly. “In training, one of first things you learn is to slap the mat,” Krucoff says. “When you go down, you want to go down on a fleshy portion of your body like your buttocks or hips, and slap or strike the mat to help lessen and distribute the impact.”
This kind of purposeful falling is not advisable for someone with osteoporosis, she says, but practiced in your 20s, 30s or 40s, karate can help lay down new bone while teaching proper fall technique, which will ideally become ingrained as you age, so if you do fall (around 650,000 people over 60 visit the ER every year due to falls) and your balance and agility don’t keep you upright, hopefully your instinct will kick in and you’ll fall the right way.
That said, “if you would like to try karate in your 50s, 60s or beyond, ask your doctor; maybe you can incorporate certain aspects, like punching, but not sparring.”
Karate can be adapted to your needs
Think all black belts look the same? Darrell Mattingly, Jr., was born with Cerebral Palsy, a motor disability that impacts a person’s ability to control his or her muscles. He uses a motorized wheelchair and walker to get around. Growing up in the 70s, Mattingly loved watching martial arts movies but “for someone with a disability, training was unheard of back then.”
At 31, he learned of a local dojo owner with a similar disability, and began taking private lessons. Mattingly quickly advanced in rank, with various instructors “helping me learn how to adapt various techniques while still honoring the tradition.” For instance, there’s a technique called Seven Swords: seven open hand strikes, coordinated with steps and shifts in weight to increase the power and speed of the strikes. “My adaptation involves keeping the hand strikes, but no foot movements. It honors the arts while making it work for me.”
Now 46 and a web developer at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, he holds the rank of Nidan (second degree black belt). Finding the right instructor, he says, is key. “All martial artist have strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “The goal of adaptive martial arts is to build your strengths without harming the art. You’re not in competition with anyone else. The goal isn’t to be better than anyone else, but to be better than you were yesterday.” (Mattingly recommends visiting the Adaptive Martial Arts Association and exploring its national directory of martial arts schools willing to train adaptive students.)
In the Adaptive Martial Arts classes at Tamashii Black Belt Academy in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, children with Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder and other special needs take to the mat every Saturday to kick, roll, block, and play duck and jump.
Owner Kyoshi Linda Hanson, a seventh degree black belt and chief consulting instructor for the AMAA, says many students are referred by occupational or physical therapists, and parents of children with an autism diagnosis may be reimbursed for classes through a local autism organization. Besides the sense of inclusion and the self-defense training learned through adaptive martial arts, Hanson marvels at the sense of accomplishment experienced by her special needs students, like a boy with spina bifida with no movement from the waist down, who recently learned to grapple from his wheelchair.
“We had his partner, a teenage student volunteer, get low so the child could bring the partner’s tummy to his knee,” Hanson explains. “Then he grabbed his partner’s head and pulled him all the way down. The triumph on his face was great. When they feel that success, there’s a big smile on their face, electricity is coming out of their fingers, and it feels like their best day.”