5 Ways Martial Arts Boost Mental Health

Mental Illness will affect almost half of all adults in the USA at some point in their lifetime. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, while anxiety disorders are the most common 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. Here are seven ways martial arts can help with mental wellness.

  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 exercise, like jogging, for these chemicals to be released, it only takes a few minutes of high-intensity training to have the same effect. Most martial arts would qualify under the moderate level, 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 that moderate exercise is as effective as antidepressants in reducing mild to moderate depression symptoms. In the UK, exercise is a recommended form of treatment.  Australia goes even farther than this. There they prescribe exercise as the initial treatment for a depressed person who is also sedentary. They first make sure that a lack of exercise is not one of the contributing factors to the illness.

  1. A Healthy Diet is Part of Being a Martial Artist

Many martial artists, especially those who desire to compete professionally, adopt a healthy diet to help them achieve their goals. When you surround yourself with people like this, it is hard not to pick up at least some of their habits on a  small scale. However, once you are training regularly, you may desire to get the most out of your hard work. 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.” 

New research has revealed that gut health is very closely entwined with mental wellbeing. This is because gut bacteria produce dopamine and norepinephrine (involved in fight or flight response). At the same time, a whopping 90% of serotonin is manufactured in the gut, not the brain. Therefore, eating better foods, especially those that boost gut health, can help to alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Martial Arts spaces are rife with practitioners who put their health first and make conscious and positive decisions regarding their nutrition and eating habits. How we treat our bodies is vital to our health as well as our overall sense of wellbeing.  

  1. 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 developed from warfare hand to hand combat. 

As students, we are taught to use our minds and our physical skills to outsmart our opponents. Developing self-belief can have immensely positive effects on mental health. Martial arts lead us to believe in ourselves and that we can do things that might seem impossible. This mentality can spread outside of the gym and into your life as a whole. 

  1. Rigorous Training Teaches Us that Growth Lies Just Outside the Comfort Zone

Another aspect of mental fortitude 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. 

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; 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.

  1. Exercise Reduces Stress

Stress makes us more likely to develop mood disorders and negatively affects healthy gut functions. Cortisol, ‘the stress hormone,’ actually plays an integral 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 was not intended to be produced at the constant and high levels we see in today’s overworked and overstressed individuals. This can cause issues around weight gain, immune system suppression, and gastrointestinal health. 

Exercise not only provides  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. 

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