Fighting fit in both body and mind

Martial arts can improve your attention span and alertness, writes Ashleigh Johnstone.

Martial arts require a good level of physical strength, but those who take up training need to develop an incredible amount of mental acuity, too.

Mental strength is so important to martial arts that researchers have found karate experts' stronger punching force may be down to a better control of muscle movement in the brain, rather than increased muscular strength. Other studies have also found that children who practise taekwondo improved in maths test scores, and behaviour.

Which leads to an interesting question - does taking part in martial arts cause the brain to develop better control, or do people with these brain characteristics choose to do martial arts?

It is something that our team has been researching, with interesting results.

We've been specifically measuring attention to assess mental control, as previous research has suggested that mindfulness and exercise can both have beneficial effects on attention. You could argue that martial arts are a combination of both - active sports that involve aspects of meditation and mindfulness.

In our recently published study, we recruited 21 amateur adults who practise martial arts (karate, judo and taekwondo, among others) and 27 adults with no experience in the sports, to take part in an attention network test. This test assesses three different types of attention: alerting (maintaining a sense of alertness), orienting (the shifting of attention) and executive (involved in choosing the correct response when there's conflicting information).

We were particularly interested in the alert network, which can reveal how vigilant a person is. If a person has a high alert score on this test, it would suggest that they are better able to respond to unpredictably timed targets than those with a low score.

We invited the participants to our lab, and recorded details of their martial arts experience before asking them to take part in the computer-based task. This involved participants seeing a row of five arrows, and responding to the direction of the central arrow by pressing a letter button on a keyboard as quickly as possible. In some trials, they were given a warning cue that told them the arrows would appear soon, and in others they weren't.

Typically, in most martial arts training, there's an element of sparring, which is a form of simulated fighting with a partner. One of the aims of this is that the partners will be attempting to remain focused and avoid their partner making contact. It is rare for a sparring opponent to give a clear warning of the exact timing of a punch, so the defending partner needs to stay alert, or vigilant, at all times.

During our research, the martial arts participants produced higher alert scores than our non-martial artists. This means that the martial artists responded to the arrows faster. This signifies that they have a greater level of vigilance, which could reflect stronger cognitive control.

We also looked at the effects of long-term martial arts practice, and found that alertness was better in the martial artists with the most amount of experience. Several of our participants who had more than nine years' experience in the sport, showed the best alertness in our tests. This suggests that the longer a person sticks at martial arts, the bigger their reward.

While it could be argued that martial arts simply are among many activities that can lead to better health, what we and other researchers found is that their practice is one of those rare crossovers that helps significantly improve the brain just as much as the body. - The Conversation

-Ashleigh Johnstone is a PhD researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University.

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