Updated: Aug 13, 2021
by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Practicing martial arts is effective self-defense...against time and unhealthy aging.
In a recent post, I explored the old aphorism that athletes should "lift weights and play your sport." For the Athlete of Aging, the "sport" is aging well and healthy and strong. We need as much strength, mobility, stamina, agility, balance, power, muscle, bone, and insulin sensitivity as we can retain. Strength and conditioning training hit all the fitness attributes, and our program is physically and metabolically comprehensive. If you squat, dead, press, bench, push the prowler, attend to your recovery, and eat properly, you are an Athlete of Aging doing what you need to do to stay strong, fit, and healthy. From the standpoint of a General Exercise Prescription, everything else is elective. But having an alternative physical activity to express and refine our fitness attributes can, for those who wish it, add exciting new dimensions. Once our training shows us that we are capable of expanding and enjoying our physical existence in the fifth decade and beyond, we may hunger for more variety and new challenges beyond simply growing our raw strength and endurance. In the previous article, I promised you that I would begin to look at other activities and their suitability for the athlete of aging. I thought we'd start with a sport perfect for people in their 70s and 80s: Cage fighting. Right? No. Of course not. Remember, our exercise medicine must meet certain criteria, which we were at pains to map out in our book The Barbell Prescription. So when we examine a potential activity, we need to look at it through the lens of those criteria. Cage fighting, as wonderful and appealing and life-affirming as it may well be, drops out of consideration as a General Exercise Prescription right away, because it does not meet the primary criterion of safety. Rock climbing, bullfighting, break dancing, scuba diving, and bungee jumping don't make the cut, either. I'm going to start our survey of activities by looking at one I know well: martial arts practice. At first blush, this one seems to fall out on safety as well. Sparring with an opponent, striking and being struck at, grappling, and engaging in acrobatic leaps and kicks don't seem a safe fit for older adults. Moreover, there are martial arts and martial arts. There's a big difference between t'ai chi and MMA, krav maga, or judo.
But hear me out: I'm actually in favor of a modified martial arts practice for older adults. The classical karate and kung fu disciplines, along with t'ai chi, incorporate the practice of forms, which offer tremendous value to Athletes of Aging with the requisite desire and aptitude. These forms are called kata in Japanese karate, hyung in Korean forms like tang soo do (which uses modifications of Japanese kata) and taolu in Chinese disciplines like kung fu and t'ai chi. These solo forms allow the practitioner to practice martial arts techniques in a specified, dynamic sequence, often meant to simulate a combat situation. But because they do not involve a physical opponent, they allow one to practice soft or hard, fast or slow, depending on the demands of practice and the capacities of the practitioner. They can be practiced alone, without equipment, or even naked, if you're into that sort of thing.
In a very real sense, kata are just elaborate dances (or exotic dances, if you go with the naked option). Like the art of dance (which is also a wonderful activity), they require commitment, precision, and practice. If you, as an Athlete of Aging, want to lift weights and play your sport, you could do a lot worse than practicing and perfecting your kata when you're not under the bar.
In my own practice, I use the hyung of tang soo do, which are Korean interpretations of karate kata. Each form takes about 45-120 seconds to perform. If I begin with the three white belt forms (sae gae hyung), move right on to the five intermediate forms (pyong ahn hyung), then the three naihanchi forms, followed by the more advanced bassai, sip soo, jin do, kong sang koon, and finally rohai, I will have spent about 25 minutes in constant motion with an elevated heart rate. All of this practice is, for me, an enjoyable and challenging expression of the strength, power, mobility, stamina, and balance I train under the bar and with the prowler. Tai chi, a true martial art, involves very similar movements to the kata or hyung of karate styles, but is usually performed more slowly and far less forcefully. (It can also be performed at combat speed with an opponent). When practiced this way, its value as "cardio" is therefore more limited, but it does capture the other fitness attributes expressed by kata, like balance and mobility, and requires a surprising amount of lower body and "core" strength to perform properly. It makes an excellent introduction to martial arts practice for the Athlete of Aging. After that, the improved mobility and balance afforded by t'ai chi can be brought to learning the kata or hyung, and these forms can be easily adapted to the athlete's capacities. Kicks can be lowered or even eliminated, stances can be narrowed and raised, and tempo can be modified to suit the needs of the individual trainee. This modified kata practice brings with it the benefits of variety, mastering a new skill with challenges enough for a lifetime, and bringing the hard-won strength and endurance of our barbell prescription to something graceful, powerful, relaxing, invigorating, and beautiful. You may have noticed a benefit I haven't mentioned: self defense. Forget it. It is generally conceded in the contemporary martial arts community--correctly, I think--that training in classical fighting systems, particularly when that training is limited to kata, is of limited value, or even worthless, as a preparation for modern violence.
The best and most effective way to deal with violence is to run away when confronted with violent or potentially violent circumstances or, better yet, avoid such situations and the sort of people who populate them. This is almost always easy to do for those of us who live in civilized and lawful societies and aren't actually interested in violence. I have seen a great deal of violence and its consequences, and it has been my observation that, in modern Western societies, violence most commonly afflicts violent people, or those who are careless, intoxicated, and stupid. And my experience on the practice floor and in the dojang, fighting actual opponents, has taught me the real lesson of the martial arts about violence: everybody loses the fight. Even the victor in a violent altercation almost always emerges injured, disfigured, or arrested. And the "victory" has come at the cost of violence and harming another being. That is no victory at all. The Chinese chengyu 兩虎相爭 says it best: When two tigers clash, one is certain to be maimed, and the other killed. So, as one who has practiced martial arts for over 40 years, I am fond of saying that martial arts practice is indeed self-defense....against time, aging, and immobility. It does not progressively train strength, it lacks the precise quantitative "dosing" of barbell training, and it has a much narrower therapeutic window as exercise medicine. The classical Japanese, Chinese and Korean forms, and even t'ai chi, are dynamic, and present a slightly higher potential for minor injuries than barbell training, even when modified for older athletes. So these activities are not a part of our General Exercise Prescription. They are more like the Olympic Lifts: to be part of any individual's exercise prescription, they must meet the threefold criteria of desire, aptitude, and tolerance. But for those who enjoy them, demonstrate even a basic ability, and tolerate the practice, they can be an immensely satisfying, life-affirming, and productive physical practice.
In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at Yoga for the Athlete of Aging.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.