By Ken Roberts
Martial arts has long been a part of my life. My first deployment overseas was to an island called Okinawa, Japan, which consequently is the birth place of karate. As a young service member I witnessed the power of martial arts, not just on the heart and muscles, but also on the mind.
Martial arts is like physical chess. It involves fitness components that developing with training, such as cardiovascular and muscular endurance, but also those that develop through practice. Neurological skills, which through practice develops balance and coordination. Anyone who's ever played chess or any other board game of strategy knows that the brain must constantly think what's next? Martial arts helps to keep the mind and body sharp. As I witnessed many natives to that area of the world were active and mentally sharp well past their 70s and 80s. What was the tie in, besides the obvious healthier diet? Physical exercise was the key.
An article published by American Academy of Neurology in June of 2011 researched the neuroprotective effect of vigorous exercise in Parkinson's disease?1 Ahlskog (2011) indicated that exercise increases serum brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF was discovered in the 1950s to have an effect on sensory and sympathetic neurons.2 The US. National Library of Medicine article on Genetics Home Reference describes BDNF.
The BDNF gene provides instructions for making a protein found in the brain and spinal cord called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This protein promotes the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by playing a role in the growth, maturation, (differentiation), and maintenance of these cells. In the brain, the BDNF protein is active at the connections between nerve cells (synapses), where cell-to-cell communication occurs. The synapse can change and adapt over time in response to experience, a characteristic called synaptic plasticity.3
Ahlsgok (2011) suggests that increased BDNF is an important effect of exercise on the brain. More specifically, vigorous exercise that increases heart rate and VO2 max improves vascular health, both in the heart and the brain.
A book by John J. Ratey, MD, called "Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain" discusses BDNF and increasing neuroplasticity in kids. He speaks of a school in Naperville, Illinois with a low academic testing scores who it all turned around through fitness in the physical education (PE) program. The PE teachers began a comprehensive program that changed the school, by not evaluating the perception of how a child is performing athleticly but rather their effort as seen through heart rate monitors. They found new and innovative ways to get kids excited about fitness. They noticed body compositions changing, behavior problems declining, and academic scores increasing. Further research from this school determined that the exercise program wasn't making the kids smarter it was waking up their brains and creating new neurons through exercise. The PE program made neurons, and the teachers put new information into the children's minds to excite those neurons. It's like a farmer planting seeds. If they don't receive water and nourishment they won't grow. On the others of that analogy, you can't water dead seeds. Nor can expect a harvest from only a few seeds. The PE program got children ready to learn, and more receptive for learning.
In the Marine Corps we did the same thing with Martial Arts. The Marine Corps Martial Arts program (MCMAP) taught value-based leadership immediately after a hard physical training effort, because the oxygen was pumping and the brain was excited from the exertion. Learning occurred faster and more efficiently. My sifu (teacher) of Applied Wing Chun (AWC), would tell me the movements of AWC are an alphabet. It was not enough to learn the body positions, which was nothing more than a letter in the alphabet. A person had to learn how to spell, and talk, and communicate through those movements.
So how does this relate to martial arts? Last year after I retired from the Marine Corps and moved from sunny San Diego to the mid-west I did not want to lose my skills and passion for teaching martial arts after so many years of teaching Marines. I taught a few classes at the local YMCA, and one individual had Parkinson's disease. A couple of the other participants were personal trainers who also were certified as Rock Steady Boxing instructors. They were all excited for my class, and how I taught, because martial arts was not about force, but about movement and connecting the mind, body and spirit. It was learning to communicate the letters of the alphabet, which not only improved the physical body, but also the mind. I focused on correct movement of the body, and teaching individuals how the body was designed to move.
Boxing is a form of martial arts, which like any good program focus on agility, dexterity, hand-eye-coordination, balance, footwork, and muscular endurance. Rock Steady Boxing is a non-profit organization designed to introduce non-contact boxing and fitness to help improve the quality of life of people with Parkinson's disease, by following some of the same training conditions that boxers work on. They receive the exercise benefits of working the heart and brain, as well as the repetitive motor skills for the neurological training. This program has grown the last few years, and is spreading into the marital arts world.
I've taught martial arts for the past 15 years, in locations all around the world, covering everything from self-defense for children and women, to advanced hand-to-hand combat for others. The most rewarding training is seeing a student's eyes light up from what they're doing, and how they feel alive while doing training. I've seen this from children. I've seen this from various people I've trained around the world regardless of their abilities and level of conditioning. Last summer I saw in the eyes of the gentlemen with Parkinson's disease.
Last night at business gathering I spoke with a women on the very same subject. The conversation came from no where, but found its need from her questions. I may teach again soon, and maybe like the amazing things Rock Steady Boxing is doing, I'll bring martial arts to my community for the health and wellness of all ages and conditions. There is definitely benefit to exercise, and a lot of joy and health benefits to marital arts. Should you know someone with Parkinson's disease, or other neurological degenerative conditions look in your local area and find a mature and qualified marital arts instructor to train with.
1. Ahslkog, E.J. (2011). Does vigorous exercise have a neuroprotective effect in Parkinson disease? Neurology. American Academy of Neurology. 2011, 77(3): 288-294. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e318225ab66 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136051/
2. Binder, D. K., and Scharfman, H.E. (2004). Brain-derived Neurotropic Factor. Growth Factors. 2004. 22(3): 123-131. doi: 10.1080/08977190410001723308. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2504526/
3. Genetic Home Reference. (2013). BDNF Gene. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2018. Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/BDNF#sourcesforpage