Karate and Health

Fighting Brian

The author, a socially inept introvert, is on the right foreground, is about to be gently kicked by his friend, Tom. Many other friends in the background will also kick him during the course of this class. Don’t worry. It doesn’t really hurt.

Introduction

I came across this essay in my files, cleaning house getting ready to move. Sadly, I was forced to retire from martial arts training and teaching a few years ago. I was 65 years old at my last black belt grading in East Lansing, Michigan, retiring shortly thereafter at the rank of Sandan in Shidokan Karate, with a previous rank of Yondan in Chito-ryu Karate.

One of the greatest highlights of my life has been helping to start Grand River Karate with Sensei Fortunato Restagno (and a host of so many others), and now my grand children are about to start this journey, too. Because of their youth, and the subsequent natural ‘worry’ of their parents, I have taken the opportunity to dust off this essay. I have not changed it since the day I submitted it, and was ultimately awarded my first degree black belt by Sensei Jake Klaus and visiting dignitary Sensei Cezar Borkowski. Thus it lacks a certain maturity, and the medical references are not ‘up-to-date’; in particular, the fitness craze is no longer novel.

But there is much truth in these thoughts, and I think much solace to be gained in parents worried about engendering violent behavior in their children, or injury to their loved ones. Karate is a beautiful sport, under appreciated in our society still. I have never been in a fight since I was fifteen, long before I entered a dojo, but I am convinced karate saved my life. You may wish to read to see if you can figure out how and why.

Karate and Health

Brian Dingle, BSc, MSc, MD, FRCPC

1985

Submitted as part of Shodan Requirements, KW Karate (Sensei Jake Klaus)

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well- being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This all-encompassing definition is included in the constitution of the World Health Organization (3), and provides a suitable standard against which the effects of any life-style may be evaluated. To establish the benefit of any life pattern to the health of an individual, be it the absence of smoking, the choice of diet, or the program of physical activity, one must look at the physical, mental and social implications of that pattern. On superficial examination, the study of a martial art would appear to benefit only the physical aspect of health; that the mental and social aspects of health are also developed is perhaps inherent in the meaning of the words Karate-do, for as the master, Gichin Funakoshi, writes
” True Karate-do is this: that in daily life one’s mind and body be trained and developed in the spirit of humility; and that in critical times one be utterly devoted to the cause of justice.” (5)
As a physician, I am dedicated to the “promotion of health” In the broadest sense of the phrase; to show the reader that the practice of Karate approaches this goal is the purpose of this essay.

Social Well-Being

“Karate-do begins and ends with courtesy. If superior to their teacher in skill, the disciples should never forget to respect their teachers.”

Zenryo Shi madukuro
1909-1969 (5)

As with any group endeavor, the practice of Karate requires talking and cooperating with other people. Being adept at these social skills is the essence of social well-being. Most adults and many teenagers have acquired these skills, though there is wide variation as to the degree. There is a moderately rigid social structure to Karate with both a hierarchy and a ritual, as in any religion or society. The structure provides comfort for those less socially secure, for the choice of behaviour in any social interaction is removed: the individual knows the ritual and so knows what is expected of him. He bows to Shomen (the front of the dojo) on entry and exit to show respect for the masters and the art; he bows to his partner or opponent before and after any practice session; and he bows to the instructor at the beginning and end of the class. He refers to his instructor with a special term of respect, ‘sensei’, and he soon views other higher belts (quickly identifiable by the colour) with a similar but “pro-rated” respect regardless of their age or social background outside the dojo. Importantly, he expects and receives similar treatment. There are no lingering doubts to this social interaction, and the individual can relax within this structure; even though he meets and talks to new people, even though he is called upon to touch or even “attack ” other individuals, the anxiety is limited because the structure of his behaviour is already set down. Even the most shy of us can do it, and its repetition buiIds confidence that inevitably extends to life outside the dojo.

The rituals of Karate at first may seem silly to the observer, but they have become second nature to those of us within the sport. Few of us think of these rituals but all of us practice them when we enter the dojo. The repetition and practice of the social rituals within Karate are of benefit to all: the child or the adult, the recluse or the socially adept. They are carried out even in the most adverse situations, as when experiencing exhaustion or defeat, or when facing someone (even someone unknown) who has just inflicted pain. Under such adversity, to smile, bow, and quietly walk away is a significant measure of social maturity.

Both the discipline of the class and the respectful behaviour displayed provide a useful model for children. Additionally, in contrast to North American “macho ” virtues popularized by television violence, the “no first strike” philosophy of Karate is emphasized; the training forms or kata always begin with a block of an imaginary attack. Participants are taught to run rather than to fight, to avoid confrontation in the first place for “…to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”(5) The self-confidence gained by the knowledge and practice of a martial art helps prevent playground fighting. It is the ego of the child in all of us that pushes us to submit to the urge of violence, and it is far easier to resist this urge when we know in our hearts that we could win.

Thus, in a general sense, the karate-ka practices the skills of social well-being with both friend and foe. More specifically, the camaraderie in the dojo may lead to lasting friendships, perhaps one of the most important aspects of social well-being.

Mental Well-being

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”

Gichin Funikoshi
1869-1957 (1)

Mental well-being is, of course, closely allied to social well-being, but deals more with how the individual perceives himself. Mental health refers to “the ability to maintain an even temper, an alert intelligence, a socially considerate behaviour, and a happy disposition.”(8) There is little doubt that exercise in general can improve mental well-being, and exercise programs are prescribed by physicians to help patients both physically and emotionally.” (10) Paradoxically, chronic fatigue, often a sign of depression, responds well to an exercise program, in spite of the fact that most patients worry the added exertion will only wear them out further.

Most of us have experienced depression or stress at some time in our lives, and are well aware that hard physical exercise helps to suppress or even eradicate these feelings. While the mechanism of this improvement is still unknown, alterations in certain hormone levels and increased blood flow to the brain during peak physical activity probably play a large part.

While valuable for mental well-being, as is any exercise, Karate is not simply a form of physical exertion. “Traditional Karate training has always been concerned with deeper issues pertaining to self-discipline, self-awareness, control, mind body harmony, mental strength and relaxation, and personal development.” (8) The concentration required in a normal class drives other issues from conscious thought, providing a form of mental relief from the day’s stresses.

Drs. Konzak and Boudreau have attempted to measure the development of mental skills and personality changes in eighty-four Karate-ka (Karate participants) at two schools in Toronto. Their findings implied an improvement in a large number of personality factors including intelligence, self-sufficiency and tender-mindedness.(8) They conclude that studying Karate “…can enable (an) individual to experience a sense of personal physical and mental competence that is consistent with…mind/ body harmony and well-being.”

Karate has been of particular help to me in the management of stress. Caring for the terminally ill can be an emotionally draining experience, and forgetting this work at home can be difficult. I had tried other sports, but all left me thinking of my patients even as I participated. Karate was different. The effort in concentrating, the exhaustion, even the ritual meditation at the beginning of class made me forget the problems of my work. Soon this became a conditioned response, so that now I find my mind emptying even as I enter the dojo for a class. Colleagues and friends have asked how I can find the time for such a sport, but I have no doubt that Karate has helped increase my “productivity” above the time spent at it.

Physical Well-being

“It is my aim and ultimate goal to assist in the mental, physical, and spiritual development of our youth so that in the future they can better contribute to the demands of our society…”

Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose
1898-1984 (5)

Few would deny that exercise is beneficial for physical well-being. Indeed, as the fitness craze takes North America by storm, doubters are considered heretics; all forms of miracles are attributed to running, squash, dancercise and some of them are even true.
In a very general sense, repetitive exercise allows an individual to complete the same amount of work more efficiently. Strength is increased, and the ability to transfer oxygen to the body’s tissues is enhanced. The same degree of work gradually requires less effort, and can be sustained for longer periods of time.

The amount of exercise necessary to improve fitness is substantial, generally estimated to be thirty minutes of moderately intense activity at least three times a week. The intensity of the exercise must be such that the body is achieving seventy per cent of its maximal oxygen consumption. As maximal oxygen consumption increases with improved fitness, the exertion required to continue progression also increases, so that all will eventually reach a plateau.

Signs of achieving seventy per cent oxygen consumption are mild to moderate perspiration, (warm, not the cold drenching sweat of illness or extreme exertion), mild breathlessness (still capable of speech and upright posture) and a pulse between 1 40 and 160 (for those aged 20, seven beats less per decade thereafter). As this degree of exertion must be maintained for thirty minutes, we’re not dealing with a walk in the country or a game of golf. A Karate class usually covers this requirement, with room to spare.

As an individual becomes more fit, the heart expands slightly, increasing the amount of blood pumped out each beat. The tissues extract a greater amount of oxygen, and consequently the resting heart rate drops. Blood pressure drops, the level of cholesterol available to harden arteries decreases, and the heart and lungs acquire greater reserves for times of illness or trauma. As muscles supporting the various joints and spine strengthen, common rheumatologic conditions such as chronic backache, fibrositis, and unstable joints improve.

The question is not so much whether exercise can produce these benefits, but rather which exercise can do so safely. Those watching an advanced Karate class might well be concerned over both the intensity of the exercise and the possibility of trauma.
Recent publicity of deaths of marathon runners, particularly the death of the fitness author James Fixx, gives cause for concern over vigorous physical exercise. However, medical researchers and epidemiologists have shown that although the risk of sudden death is greater during hard physical exercise, the overall decrease in risk at times other than exercise more than offsets this small hazard (9). Thus for the average healthy person, one need not be worried about participating in vigorous exercise; one rather should be worried about abstaining.

Trauma is a problem with any sport, each sport seeming to have its own peculiar “brand” of common injury: knee and shoulder injuries in hockey, football, and basketball; eye injuries in squash; head injuries in boxing; shin splints in running. Disregarding the pulled muscles, stiffness and minor scrapes that occur in all sports, the incidence of injury in Karate seems to contradict the apparent “violence.” In one large study it was found that serious injuries occur only rarely(1) and then mostly during sparring in competition. This is largely because of the control that is emphasized in all styles of the martial art. Certainly Karate compares favourably to football and hockey where deaths and paralysis are known to occur.

The usual injuries in Karate are pulled or torn muscles (generally the hamstrings in the thigh), digital injuries (toes and fingers), and hyperextension injuries of the elbows and knees. All are due to faulty practice or technique, and tend to decrease as the participant becomes more experienced. Proper warm-up and stretching routines are strongly emphasized (much more than in any organized sport or physical education class I’ve observed). The injuries I have seen in class or as the attending physician at competitions have always been minor, rarely resulting in time off from training. 

Conclusion

Karate is an individual sport which can be practiced as a group, or a group sport which can be practiced individually. Each participant progresses according to his own effort, age, and body type, and room for improvement is always present regardless of an individual’s proficiency. Special equipment is generally not required, and any medium sized room or lawn is sufficient space. Thus the sport can be continued throughout an entire lifetime, barring serious illness. The practice of Karate advances social,
mental and physical well-being.

In every sense of the phrase, Karate promotes health.

Bibliography

  1. Birrer, Richard B., and Birrer, Christina D.: Martial Arts Injuries. The Physician and Sports Medicine, 101(6): 103-108, June 1982
  2. Borkowski, Cezar: Modern Shodokan Karate; Masters Publications, Japanese Karate Academy Ltd., Hamilton, Canada, 1983
  3. Clark, Duncan W. and MacHon, Brian: Preventive Medicine J&E Churchill Ltd., London, 1967
  4. Feld, Michael S., McNair, Ronald E., and Wilk, Stephen R.The Physics of Karate.Scientific American 240: 150-158, April 79
  5. Funakoshi, Gichin: Karate-Do Kyohan; Kondasha International Ltd., Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, 1980
  6. Funakoshi * Gichin: Karate-Do, My way of Life; Kondasha International Ltd., Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, 1982
  7. Higashi, Shane Y.: Chito Ryu Karate; Chito Kai, Toronto,
  8. Konzak, Burt and Boudreau, Francoise: Martial Arts Training and Mental Health: An Exercise in Self-Help. Canada’ s Mental Health 32(4: 2-8, Dec 1984
  9. Siscovick, David S. et al: The Incidence of Primary Cardiac Arrest during Vigorous Exercise. The New England Journal of Medicine Oct 4, 1984
  10. Walker, Herbert E.: Occupational Therapy and Other Therapeutic Activities, Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry/ IV, Vol 2, Fourth Edition, Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1985

Fast forward, December 20th, 2016: For those parents reading who are in London, Ontario, or Guelph Ontario, two other excellent affiliated dojos are London Shidokan Karate, Sensei Larry Bowlby, and ShidoKan Canada, Sensei Roy Paul. In Kitchener-Waterloo, of  course, is Grand River KarateThese are great schools with kind, welcoming instructors, and are part of the same much larger international organization Beikoku ShidoKan, lead by Sensei Seikichi Iha, Hanshi from Michigan, USA, which also includes Grand River Karate. Sensei Iha, in particular, sets the tone of these dojos emphasizing friendship as the most important value.

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One thought on “Karate and Health

  1. ❤️ I knew you wouldn’t recommend anything that would hurt them. They are really looking forward to their classes. You will have to show them a move or two when you are here Saturday 🙂

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