Fellow BCKA instructor Ally Whytock has shared a recent (21 September 2015) scientific paper with me called: “Comparing the effectiveness of karate and fitness training on cognitive functioning in older adults—a randomized controlled trial”
Here is the link to the paper: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254615000939
The study looked at 89 adults with an average (mean) age of 70.
The paper found that, “a significant improvement in motor reactivity, stress tolerance, and divided attention only after the 5-month karate training period. Additionally, the results of the secondary study indicate further improvements after 10 months … We conclude that 5-month karate training can help to enhance attention, resilience, and motor reaction time, but a training period of 10 months is even more efficient.”
Here is the opening part of the paper:
Recent studies demonstrate a slowdown in deterioration of cognitive functioning in old age through aerobic training. There is evidence that the combination of aerobic, balance and coordination exercises leads to an improvement or maintenance of cognitive functions. Such age-related exercises can especially be found in East Asian martial arts. The purpose of the current study is to verify whether karate training for older adults improves cognitive functioning and, if an improvement can be found, which cognitive fields are influenced.
Eighty-nine older women and men (mean age: 70 years) participated in this study. The participants were randomized into two intervention groups (karate group and fitness group, duration of intervention: 5 months) and a control group. All participants had to accomplish a cognitive test battery before and after the intervention. In a secondary study the karate group had an additional intervention for another 5 months.
The results show that there is a significant improvement in motor reactivity, stress tolerance, and divided attention only after the 5-month karate training period. Additionally, the results of the secondary study indicate further improvements after 10 months.
We conclude that 5-month karate training can help to enhance attention, resilience, and motor reaction time, but a training period of 10 months is even more efficient
The study also referenced related studies that had also found positive results when the elderly practise martial arts. Benefits included improvements in quality of life, better memory, increased well-being, better posture, improved reaction time, etc
Our study focuses on East Asian sports including whole-body exercises on a high coordinative level and investigates a possible effect on the cognitive performance of older adults. Chang et al. postulate that Tai Chi improves cognitive abilities in older adults. The study by Dechamps et al. of frail older adults confirms that a Tai Chi training program (twice a week, 30 min) enhances the physical and mental state through the interaction of cognition and action.
Wagner studied the effect of a modified karate training of adults aged older than 50 years on physical and cognitive abilities and well-being. His findings show advances in short-term and procedural memory. He therefore concludes that appropriate karate training for older adults reduces fall risk and improves the subjective quality of life.
The study by Jansen and Dahmen-Zimmer analyzed explicitly the impact of karate training, including exercises with more stringent requirements in coordination, on the well-being and cognitive abilities of older adults. The results show only trends of improvements in memory performance but significant improvements in well-being. It should to be noted that the training group contained only 12 subjects and the interventions had a duration of only 3 months.
Chateau-Degat et al. examined 15 50-year-old men in regard to the impact of karate training on healthy well-being, balance, aerobic capacity, and cognitive abilities. However, a control group without intervention is missing. The results show that a karate training over 12 months has a positive influence on mood and perception of physical health. This was confirmed by a better postural control, improved performance on objective physical testing, and shorter reaction time of the non-dominant hand.
The paper then goes on to state that:
“From all these research findings we can conclude that a combination of aerobic, balance and coordination exercises leads to an improvement or maintenance of cognitive functions.”
The authors specifically selected to study karate because:
“From these we selected karate, because techniques can exercise relatively slow, weapons may not be used and therefore the risk of injuries for older adults is low … [karate] is characterized by aerobic fitness, coordination between arms and legs as well as between the right and left sides of the body at a relatively high level, continuous learning of new movements and orientation.”
Kata certainly has the elements listed while being safe. This is one of the things that really attracts me to karate: It is a whole life practise! It’s not something I have to give up as my body ages. The way I practise will change, and karate allows for that. It can be hard, austere and highly combative … but we can’t keep that up forever. As we age, we can continue to practise in a more age appropriate way; and still benefit from doing so.
I have an image that in my old age I will do a kata or two each day. It will be softer and less dynamic than I do it now, and the amount of live partner work and impact work will have been greatly reduced. I’ll train differently, but I’ll still be an active karateka following the common thread of kata.
I was a karateka as a child. I was a karateka as a teenager. I was a karateka as a young man. I am a karateka as a middle-aged man. I will be a karateka as an elderly man. Kata is common to all stages and at each stage karate is able to enhance the quality of my life.
To me, this is one of the huge positives of karate. You never have to “leave it behind”.
Not all martial paths can say this. Some can only cater for a certain time in one’s life before active involvement becomes unadvisable (i.e. boxing, MMA, etc). You can coach, but you can’t remain personally active because there is no mechanism to do so. There will be exceptions, but the majority of practitioners of certain martial paths will have to stop active practise as they become elderly.
It’s not good for most people in their 70s and over to get thrown to the floor, to have their joints locked, to take impact, or to hit things with force. Sure, do all that when young! I love that side of karate. But we also have a means by which we can continue indefinitely. To me, it is kata that provides that thread. Kata gives: Coordination and exercise for kids; a repository of combative techniques and principles for our adult years; and a means to remain fit and healthy in our old age.
It’s good to see science backing up what karateka have always experienced first hand:
“In the past, many masters of karate have enjoyed long lives. Karate aids in developing the bones and muscles. It helps the digestion as well as the circulation.” – Anko Itosu, 1908
“Master Itosu lived to the venerable age of eighty five, and Itosu to that of eighty. Master Azato’s own teacher, Master Matsumura lived to be over ninety years of age. Other contemporary karate experts such as Yamaguchi, Aragake, Chibana, Nakazato, Yahiku, Tokashiki, Sakihara, and Chinen, have all lived to be over eighty. These examples are indicative of the role of karate as a superior method of maintaining one’s health.” – Gichin Funakoshi, 1935
All the best,