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"The Empty Hand"

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The Science of Karate Training

I can tell you that martial arts training is the best thing you can do for yourself or your child. And while I believe that to be 100% true, it’s also true that I have an extreme bias. So it’s nice when you have science on your side. Science doesn’t care about opinions or feelings, it only cares about truth. So here’s some science, based on extensive studies, explaining why martial arts is so good for you. (**Caution: if you don’t like arguments based on facts and logic, please stop reading now!)

First, let's look at the book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., professor of Psychology at Temple University and expert on psychological development during adolescence. This book focuses on the best ways to develop a young mind as well as the best ways to communicate with adolescence.

Early in the book Dr. Steinberg writes “The capacity for self-regulation (self-control) is probably the single most important contributor to achievement, mental health, and social success. The ability to exercise control over what we think, what we feel, and what we do protects against a wide range of psychological disorders, contributes to more satisfying and fulfilling relationships, and facilitates accomplishment in the worlds of school and work…. This makes developing self-regulation the central task of adolescence, and the goal that we should be pursuing as parents, educators, and health care professionals.”

Can you think of another activity that can develop self-regulation or self-control better than martial arts? It’s so important to our training in Uechi Ryu that it is one of the eight listed virtues of our training! We are learning to kick, punch, throw, and restrain other people. We learn this initially through the cooperation of a partner that allows us to use them to develop technique. Over time we practice these techniques in a more realistic way using more force and faster movements. All of this takes tremendous self-control to keep both your partner and yourself safe. Considering that Dr. Steinberg considers self-control to be the “single most important contributor” to success in life for an adolescent to develop, I’d say that martial arts could be a vital activity for many kids. I’m sure if you’ve been in a dojo for more than a short while then you have seen a positive change in several kids as they progress in their training.

Dr. Steinberg then writes about the three brain systems in an adolescent's mind. “These three brain systems- the reward system, the relationship system, and the regulatory system- are the chief places where the brain changes during adolescence...These are the brain systems that are most responsive to stimulation during adolescence…”

It’s easy to see how martial arts can contribute to the development of each of these brain systems. The “reward system” of the brain is custom made for martial arts. We have a built in reward system that we tie around our waists for each class. The harder and longer you train, the more reward you receive. Dr. Steinberg explains that “It’s easier to change an adolescent’s behavior by motivating him with the prospect of a reward than by threatening him with a potential punishment.” The “relationship system” is developed in the dojo with your classmates. Some of my best friends are at the dojo. It is such a unique way to develop a friend: by kicking and punching at them, by pounding arms with them, or by throwing them to the ground. All of it is done with respect and the other person's safety in mind. And I just wrote about some of the many ways that martial arts develops the “regulatory system.” All of the major brain systems in the adolescent mind being developed by the same activity, that is tough to beat!

Next, let’s look at the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. We all know that exercise is good for our bodies, and we can all say it is good for our minds, which it is. But in this book, Dr. Ratey looks at what actually happens to the brain during exercise and explains why it is good for our minds.

On a basic level, Dr. Ratey explains that “toxic levels of stress erode the connections between the billions of nerve cells in the brain or that chronic depression shrinks certain areas of the brain...exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process...the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity.”

Dr. Ratey states that exercise helps treat: depression, ADHD, addiction, anxiety, helps produce BDNF in the brain which is a protein in the brain that serves as the brain’s “Miracle-Gro”, keeping brain cells functioning and growing. Fitness is also shown to play a pivotal role in student’s academic achievements which is proven with an extensive study of a school district in Illinois that focuses it’s PE classes more on overall fitness instead of competitive sports and the amazing results that has shown in the district’s academic achievements. Dr. Ratey puts it simply: “Good for the body, good for the brain...You have the power to change your brain. All you have to do is lace up your running shoes.”

Dr. Ratey writes that “exercise improves learning on three levels: first, it optimizes your mindset to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus (the way station for any aspects of learning and memory in the brain).

To achieve learning on these three levels, Dr. Ratey suggests an activity that simultaneously taxes the cardiovascular system and the brain, and that involves repetition. Dr. Ratey specifically suggests Karate as an activity that perfectly fits this bill. He explains that “Karate, as you perfect certain forms, you can incorporate them into more complicated movements, and before long you have new responses to new situations.” You have the good doctor’s word now: Karate is good for the body and the mind!

Of course both books go into far greater detail about the science and research that went into these conclusions. This is simply a highlight of some of their findings. I can tell someone to get into the dojo to improve their physical and mental health, but they might think I’m just promoting things that I like to do. But there really is science behind it all. So get training!

Train hard and with intent! Thank you for your time.

john g

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