Almost half of all adults in the US will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, while anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the US. Despite the alarming numbers, less than half of those suffering receive formal treatment, but there are methods to improve the situation regardless of whether you choose to have treatment or not.
Exercise as a whole, and martial arts in particular, can help to reduce symptoms of mental illness while increasing feelings of wellbeing. Wellbeing will always be specific to the individual, but here we will look at 7 important aspects of mental wellness and how martial arts can help improve that area.
1- Exercise Releases ‘Happy’ Endorphins
Exercise is scientifically proven to produce ‘happy chemicals’. When you train, especially at a moderate level or above, your brain releases the endorphins dopamine and serotonin. While it takes 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, like jogging, for these chemicals to be released, it only takes a few minutes of high-intensity exercise to have the same effect. Most martial arts could be considered moderate exercise, but disciplines such as Thai boxing or Kickboxing will definitely have you training in the high-intensity zone.
If you suffer from depression, it is well worth knowing that clinical studies have found moderate-intensity exercise to be as effective as antidepressants for reducing the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. In the US, medication and psychotherapy are the first lines of treatment for depression, however, this is not the case in every country. Other countries such as the UK, recommend exercise as a form of treatment. Australia goes even further than this. There they prescribe exercise as the initial treatment for a depressed person who is also sedentary.
Every individual has their own unique experience with mental illness, and you should always consult with your doctor before making any alterations to medications or therapy. But what can be taken from these studies and guidelines is that exercise is an effective tool in reducing the symptoms of depression and that movement is an essential part of life and our wellbeing.
2- Exercise can Improve Sleep Quality
Dopamine is released during training, but serotonin is released later, after the dopamine levels start to decline. You may have already heard of serotonin if you have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety. This is the hormone that is thought to be produced at insufficient levels by those who have mental illnesses. It is also known as the “feel good” hormone. Serotonin helps to regulate mood, and feelings of well-being and happiness.
It also plays a less publicised, but equally critical role in our sleeping patterns. This is because it is necessary in the synthesization of melatonin. Melatonin is crucial to our sleep as it regulates our sleep/wake cycle as well as our biological clock and serotonin is necessary to trigger this hormone to help us get a restful night’s sleep.
Why is this important? Research shows that exercise decreases sleep problems and insomnia. Only 30 minutes of moderate exercise can help you to sleep better that very night by improving your level of deep and most restful sleep. Exercise not only improves sleep quality but it can also help you to fall asleep more quickly. Martial arts challenge the body as well as the mind and are a great way to spend built up energy or exhaust yourself. It is worth noting that some individuals will sleep very well after an evening class, while it can keep others up. Pay close attention to your sleep habits and when you train, to decide what time of the day will provide you with the best night’s rest.
3- Martial Arts Gyms Provide a Community of Like-Minded People
A common symptom of depression is the feeling of loneliness, whether that is real or perceived. Joining a martial arts gym is not only beginning a new sport, it is also joining a new community. Furthermore, it is a community that has a shared interest. Regardless of whatever differences there may be, most members remember what it was like to be a beginner, to be nervous for their first class and to struggle learning a new skill. In fact, martial arts gyms are one of the best places to make new friends because many disciplines teach a moral code alongside the martial art. Integral to these codes are characteristics such as respect, humility, and helpfulness.
Again, the research is here to back this up, with community involvement shown to improve mental health. New connections through social groups, such as a martial arts gym, is shown to reduce mental health issues due to the social connectedness that one can find there. Some of the world’s most successful people have said that you are the sum of the 5 closest people to you. Furtherstill, they encourage us to surround ourselves with those who are a few steps ahead of us or have mastered the qualities we would like to emulate.
4- A Healthy Diet is Part of Being a Martial Artist
Many martial artists, especially those that desire to and do compete professionally, adopt a healthy diet to help them achieve their goals. When you surround yourself around people like this, it is hard not to pick up at least some of their habits on a small scale.
On top of that, once you are training regularly, there is a desire to get the most out of the hard work you put in. One way to do this is to eat better. Good nutrition helps build and repair muscle, aids recovery and provides better quality fuel for your “engine”. Good nutrition is paramount to the world’s best martial artists.
New research has revealed that gut health is very closely entwined with mental wellbeing. This is because gut bacteria is responsible for producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine (involved in fight or flight response), while a whopping 90% of serotonin is actually manufactured in the gut, not the brain.
This means that eating better foods, especially those that boost gut health, can help to alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
When we are seeking to create change and adopt new habits, it is incredibly useful to position ourselves around people who have already had success in those areas. Martial Arts spaces are rife with practitioners who put their health first and make conscious and positive decisions in regards to their nutrition and eating habits. How we treat our bodies is important to our health as well our overall sense of wellbeing. It is always advisable to speak to a professional such as a registered dietician, but it is duly important to be in an environment that is supportive of any changes you make to ensure a favorable outcome, and a martial arts gym is a great place to start.
5- Martial Arts Develops the Mind and the Body
An aspect of martial arts that can often fly under the radar is the cultivation of mindset. What we see on media outlets is largely physical prowess, however, curating a strong mind is a pillar of ancient martial arts, especially those such as Thai boxing that have been developed from warfare hand to hand combat.
As fighters, we are taught to use our minds as well as our physical skills to beat our opponents. This begins long before there is even a match. It starts with the development of self belief, self confidence and mental discipline. It reminds me of a quote that was displayed in my first Muay Thai gym:
“Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” – Walter D. Wintle
Developing self belief and mental fortitude can have immensely positive effects on mental health. Martial arts teaches us to believe in ourselves and that we are capable of doing things that might seem impossible. This mentality has the ability to spread outside of training alone and into your life as a whole.
6- Rigorous Training Teaches Us that Growth Lies Just Outside the Comfort Zone
Another aspect of mental fortitude that is developed in martial arts gyms is learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Despite our weaknesses, fears and failures, we persist nevertheless. Martial Arts gyms create a healthy environment to be able to explore this. It is supportive, encouraging and honest.
The notion is revisited daily. We are expected to show up, push just past our boundaries, and be able to do it all again tomorrow. Whether through direct or indirect tuition, we face our comfort zone on a recurrent basis and we must cross that barrier every day we show up at a martial arts gym. It is the nature of these sports.
It never ceases to be uncomfortable, rather, our attitudes towards being uncomfortable change.
This mindset shift again bolsters and reinforces our ability to get through difficult situations, take greater control over our minds and learn to direct or redirect our thoughts towards more productive or positive outcomes.
7- Exercise Reduces Stress
Stress makes us more likely to develop mood disorders and negatively affects healthy gut functions. Cortisol, ‘the stress hormone’, actually plays a necessary role in our daily functioning. It helps us to wake up in the morning and controls energy levels throughout the day. It is also released during exercise, however, it is not supposed to be produced at the constant levels we see in today’s overworked and overstressed individuals. High levels of cortisol are associated with weight gain, immune system suppression and gastrointestinal health.
As previously discussed, the gut plays a crucial role in hormone synthesis and is often called ‘the second brain’. It benefits our gut health, and consequently our mood, to reduce our stress levels. Martial Arts is a great medium for this. Learning a new skill forces us to focus in the present moment and temporarily forget about our to-do list and other responsibilities or deadlines.
Striking is an excellent way to release pent up stressful energy – nothing beats padwork or bagwork when you need to let off some steam.
Exercise, especially striking arts, not only provides a release but also a framework for dealing with stress. In class, we can face many different stressors, but we are encouraged to problem solve and find healthy ways of dealing with it.
There are many avenues to choose from when looking to boost mental health. And no one size will fit all. What does hold true is that energy goes where attention flows, and learning the art of mindfulness teaches us to be aware of where that energy is going. Choosing to focus on just one of these key areas of mental health can help to alleviate symptoms, create better habits and increase overall sense of wellbeing.
Martial arts is not so much about fighting as it is about building character. Although it has a tough exterior, at the core, there is a focus on mindset and mindfulness.
Martial Arts is an excellent conduit for improving mental health because it goes beyond delivering the benefits of exercise alone. It also seeks to build self confidence, discipline and mental fortitude. In this manner, the benefits come not just for an hour, but for a lifetime.