Build Your Body and Mind With a Self-Defense Workout
The term "martial arts" evokes images of screen heroes who kick or fight their way out of desperate situations.
Off-screen, however, many men and women take up martial arts for very realistic reasons -- not just to learn self-defense skills, but also for the benefits to body and mind.
"When I was teaching martial arts classes about 10 years ago, usually more than 80 percent of students were male," says Michael Ur, Ph.D., associate director of the University of California Martial Arts Program, Berkeley. "These days, more than 60 percent are female."
Nearly all forms of martial arts rely on a combination of warm-up and stretching exercises, technique instruction and constant repetition of primary movements.
Within that basic framework, each of the wide variety of available martial arts disciplines has unique characteristics. The discipline you choose to follow should suit your personality, preferences and goals.
Here are a few of the more popular martial arts.
Karate is very energetic, with a focus on strikes and kicks. The Japanese Shotokan style, popular in North America, emphasizes open movements, low stances and powerful, thrusting kicks.
Tae kwon do generally emphasizes kicking and punching movements.
Judo requires flexibility and involves a lot of holding and throwing of opponents.
Hapkido combines tae kwon do and judo techniques, and involves lots of wrist and elbow action.
Wushu uses smooth, circular motions to move from defense to offense and back.
Benefits to the body
Physical benefits include:
Consistent exercise and conditioning. Practicing martial arts helps you develop above-average strength, agility, flexibility and endurance.
Incentive to keep training. Many people who start a personal fitness program give up as soon as they suffer their first lapse in routine. But because of the hierarchical structure in the martial arts, students are motivated to strive for the next proficiency level.
Benefits to the mind
Mental health benefits include:
Interpersonal skills. Practicing martial arts requires many hours of cooperation and coordination with your opponent.
Concentration and coordination. Even if you're not fast, strong or youthful, with martial arts training you can develop the ability to see and react in a relaxed way, with quickness and precision -- while using what strength you have to its best advantage. These skills extend well beyond the exercise mat.
Self-confidence and respect. Over time, training develops self-confidence and patience. Participants begin each session with a bow to their masters, and over time they learn to maintain self-discipline.