Most people start training karate and other martial arts because of its many benefits, such as improving physical fitness and strength. Karate is a complete martial art — works upper body as much as the lower body, and teaches you to use your body in all directions — and the list of benefits is extensive.

However, we often overlook the impact karate has on our brains. Researchers already proved that karate changes your brain to create stronger punches, but you might be wondering, “what other changes the daily practice can bring?”

In a piece for The Conversation, Ashleigh Johnstone, a researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University, explains how martial arts can boost your brain’s cognition too. We also included a few notes of our own!

Here are five reasons you should start karate to boost your brain and keep you sharp year-round:

1. Improved Attention

Researchers say that there are two ways to improve attention: through attention training (AT), and attention state training (AST). 

AT is based on practising a specific skill and getting better at that skill, but not others — using a brain-training video game, for example. AST, on the other hand, is about getting into a specific state of mind that allows a stronger focus, like exercising, meditating, or doing yoga.

Recent studies linked practicing martial arts to improved alertness, which corroborates the hypothesis of it being an attention state training.

Another study also showed that martial arts practice — especially karate training — is linked with better performance on a divided attention task.

From our dojo:

During our classes at the Shinjigenkan Institute Canada, we practice Zanshin — the state of total, relaxed, awareness. The constant training of this state of mind is guaranteed to contribute to increasing your attention capacity. More than that, Zanshin leads to the state of flow, a mental state widely discussed in mindfulness practices.

2. Reduced aggression

In a US study, children aged 8-11 participated in traditional martial arts training that focused on respecting other people and defending themselves as part of an anti-bullying programme. The practice also taught children how to maintain a level of self-control in heated situations.

The researchers found that the martial arts training reduced the level of aggressive behaviour in boys, and found that they were more likely to step in and help someone who was being bullied than before they took part in the training.

Interestingly, this anti-aggression effect is not limited to young children. A different piece of research found reduced physical and verbal aggression, as well as hostility, in adolescents who practised martial arts too.

From our dojo:

One of the five dojo-kun — loosely translated as the five rules of the dojo — from shotokan karate clearly states: “Refrain from violent behaviour.” To practice karate is to learn who you are and how to fight your demons without involving any violent act.

3. Greater stress management

Some forms of martial arts, such as tai chi, are famous for placing great emphasis on controlled breathing and meditation. These were strongly linked in one study with reduced feelings of stress, as well as being better able to manage stress when it is present in young to middle-aged adults.

During karate practice, we usually get more physical, but that is not counterproductive.

The mental benefits of consistently training karate also have a neurochemical basis. O good session reduces the levels of the stress hormones — such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. That combination is excellent for lowering the stress levels of daily life.

From our dojo:

Time and time again, we hear: “Thanks for the training. It was great to release some stress.” Can you get better feedback than that?

4. Enhanced emotional well-being

As several scientists are now looking into the links between psychological well-being and physical health, it’s crucial to note how martial arts improve a person’s emotional well-being too.

In one study, 45 older adults (aged 67-93) participated in karate training, cognitive training, or non-martial arts physical exercise for three to six months. The older adults in the karate training showed lower levels of depression after the training period than both other groups, perhaps due to its meditative aspect. These adults showed a higher level of self-esteem after the training too.

From our dojo:

Nayane senpai, our assistant instructor, always says: There is life before and after karate!

5. Improved memory

After comparing a sedentary control group to a group of people practicing karate, Italian researchers found that taking part in karate can improve a person’s working memory. They used a test that involved recalling and repeating a series of numbers, both in the correct order and backwards, which increased in difficulty until the participant was unable to continue.

The karate group was much better at this task than the control group, meaning they could recall a more extended series of numbers. Another project found similar results while comparing tai chi practice with “western exercise” — strength, endurance, and resistance training.

From our dojo:

There are several sequences, movements, and patterns you must learn as you progress in your training. This will for sure keep your mind sharp.

Bonus: Create Momentum!

When you start something and stick to it, you create momentum. How so? You accomplish one thing, feel better about it and want to finish others — and the cycle repeats, always moving forward! Practicing karate is the start you were looking for to develop a sharp and quiet mind. Give it a go and see how karate can boost your brain!