Martial arts can provide a variety of health benefits for people of all ages. Perhaps the best studied is tai chi, which can improve balance and coordination (including in people with Parkinson’s disease), memory, and sleep, as well as reduce anxiety, depression, falls, and knee, back, and other types of chronic pain. Here’s a summary of some research:
- Balance, strength, endurance. A 2014 review paper in the journal Societies analyzed four studies with a total of 112 people over age 40 who participated in tae kwon do or karate. Despite some methodology problems, all the studies found improvements in balance and the ability to stand longer on one leg, as well as in reaction time.
- Fall reduction. In a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, older adults with recent injuries from falls were randomized to either take tai chi classes or do leg strengthening exercises for six months. Those in the tai chi group were significantly less likely to fall, and significantly less likely to be injured if they did fall. And a 2017 analysis of 10 clinical trials, also in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that older people who did tai chi (one to three times a week) had a 43 percent reduction in falls within three to six months, compared to usual care or other interventions.
- Cognitive improvements. In a 2016 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, 89 older women and men were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group practiced karate twice a week; another group did traditional fitness activities twice a week, including running and strength training. The third (control) group continued their normal activities. After five months, only the karate group showed improvement in attentiveness, reaction time, and mental resilience under stress (which involved a computer test in which users had to react to rapidly changing colors and sounds). It’s not clear why karate was better than other types of exercise, but the authors speculated that its specific blend of aerobics, balance, and coordination may have a particularly beneficial effect on the brain.