Karate and Brains…

(For clarity’s sake – this post was written some years ago, when I was a 6th kyu).

We all know the stereotype. Sporty kids are not so great at academic work and the ‘brainiacs’ have two left feet, are unfit and uncoordinated.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  While Karate has always rejected the idea that the mind and body are independent of one another, developmental scientists are just beginning to understand the connections.
Physical fitness is one of the most reliable predictors of academic success (even if you control for other things like income, parenting and education quality).  Here’s how it works.  Regular high intensity exercise makes measurable changes to children’s brain chemistry.  Exercise raises levels of proteins and neurotransmitters in the brain that promote faster learning, as well as development and growth of new brain cells and synapses (connections). During intense exercise, growth hormones start passing through the blood brain barrier that don’t otherwise get in, stimulating new brain cell growth not only in the areas responsible for motor function, but also in structures like the hippocampus, a most important memory centre.  Small wonder Associate Professor John Ratey of Harvard Medical School calls exercise ‘miracle-gro’ for the brain.  These are just a few of the psychological benefits of exercise. The evidence is clear, when it comes to cognitive and emotional development, regularly raising the heart rate for an hour is vital for children’s cognitive and academic development.  But kids can get that in any sport, so why Karate?

IMG_2338As a general health tonic, Karate has no peer.  Every child needs high intensity exercise, but according to Professor John Ratey, school based sports and physical education programs can miss the children that need it most.  The majority of sports taught in schools are team based and competitive. The less athletic try to avoid the embarrassment of not being selected or worse, letting the team down – especially as they enter their teens.  This doesn’t make for good memories, and as soon as they don’t have to do it, they stop.  Imagine never ever using mental maths or writing once you left school?
Karate is different in that the emphasis is on extending oneself.  The opening ‘Please help me’ and the ending ‘Thank you very much’ remind students that their partner is there to help them improve.  The real victory is to improve your own performance, not defeat another.  Anyone can improve on themselves, and it’s a basic law in psychology that events followed by a sense of pride are more likely to re-occur. Because progression through the Goju-ryu system requires that students surpass themselves, rather than defeat others, the rewards are available to all who are intent on continuing – not just the ‘sporty’ people.

Better still, Karate is such a broad activity (kata, calisthenics, kumite) there is never a time when they will be obliged to cease practising.  From stretching and kata to basic body conditioning, Karate teaches children more than sport, it teaches a lifestyle that will improve their health, happiness and learning for all time.  You don’t see many 60 year old footballers on the field, but I know plenty of 60 year old karateka. It’s a good thing too, because at the other end of the spectrum, vigorous exercise is a well-known protective factor against cognitive decline (including Alzheimer’s) in older age.

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