Karate: Self-defense for Aging?

Karate, Aging, Older Adult, Vancouver, Kobudo, BC
Higa Minoru of the Kyudokan

Most older Karateka practice for the sheer love of their art and may give little thought to the health benefits it provides. Aging is inevitable, but how we age is just as important as regular practice. Indeed, if Karate is a lifelong pursuit then we have to be in the best of health in order to continue its practice as we get older.

Enter science. There is ample research on animal and human life span; how long we have on this planet. In contrast there is less research on how our health changes over our lives in relation to exercise, and virtually none with respect to how Karate practice may impact a person’s health over the course of her lifetime. When do we start the slide into losing our health? Is it inevitable? Reversible? All valid questions and unfortunately there aren’t many answers.

So, I decided to take a quick look at the academic research on this subject and found an interesting paper from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research entitled  Martial Arts Training Enhances the Glutathione antioxidant system in middle-aged adults (Aug 2009, Vol. 23 Issue 5, p1518). In this paper they recruited two sets of subjects, sedentary (9 subjects) and Korean Karate students (9 subjects; practicing at least 4 years, two times a week) ranging in age from 40 to 60 years old. A comparison of physical characteristics between the two groups with respect to age, weight, height, BMI, resting heart rate and blood pressure showed no difference between the two groups.

The researchers compared both groups on their level of Glutathione (GSH) (an indirect measure of oxidative stress, i.e. aging) before and after exercising on a treadmill. They found that the physically active, middle-aged Karateka had a much higher level of antioxidant defense compared to the sedentary subjects. In other words their GSH levels did not decrease nearly as much as the sedentary group. They speculated that this higher level of protection, “may be an effective means of improving overall health by protecting against the adverse effects of oxidative stress associated with the free radical theory of aging.”

Now before we all run out and start telling people that Karate practice is the ‘fountain of youth’, we need to keep a few things in mind. First the number of subjects used in the study were few, so its hard to come to any hard and fast conclusions with such low numbers. The second thing to bear in mind is that GSH is an indirect measure of aging and health and may not actually have a dramatic impact on how a person actually ages.

That said, I suspect that overall the Karateka were better at activities of daily living. Things like standing-up, walking, turning around, picking something off of the floor compared to their sedentary counterparts. Making their daily lives that much easier. This benefit may not be unique to people who practice Karate compared to another sport, but it certainly isn’t a bad thing.

In my own dojo, I emphasize not only the technical and practical aspects of Okinawa Karate do, but also the health benefits that come with regular training. With myself and some of my other students now into our 40s, this has become more and more important to us. So, keep on punching!