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The martial arts are one of the most popular activities in the US. Whether it’s Karate, Aikido, Krav Maga or, my personal favorite, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, martial arts have been booming in recent years. Martial arts are a great way to maintain physical fitness. There’s also a feeling that martial arts have other, more esoteric benefits. For example, films like The Karate Kid traded on the idea that martial arts have a spiritual aspect. As it turns out, that’s partly true. Martial arts have great benefits for mental health, not just physical health.

It’s counterintuitive at the surface level, but martial arts actually help people to lead calmer, more self-possessed lives. This happens for a number of reasons, one being mindfulness. To really excel at martial arts, it is important to pay very close attention. In fact, martial arts can be especially helpful for people who struggle with attention or have trouble focusing, including with ADHD type disorders. Martial arts foster concentration skills in people. This has been borne out in several studies. Children and adults both receive attention benefits. Martial arts improve both attention training and attention state training. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in particular helps people perform better in tasks that divide their attention.

In addition to improving attention skills, martial arts have a number of benefits that can foster good mental health. It’s well-known that people who suffer from depression can benefit from physical exercise like martial arts. Exercise can release feel-good chemicals like endorphins and cannabinoids in the brain that lift mood. Other mood-boosting benefits of martial arts are similar to the benefits that come from mastering any hobby. Martial arts can improve peoples’ confidence. For people who struggle with anger or anxiety, martial arts can be a channel to redirect their energy.

Finally, martial arts help people to feel empowered. Learning martial arts can help people process their trauma and redirect feelings of powerlessness. Mastering a martial art can help someone who was previously victimized feel more in control. Martial arts also teach people to establish and defend healthy boundaries. Author Becky Oberg notes that the true payoff of martial arts is an unexpectedly ironic one. Learning martial arts helps people learn to avoid fights. Martial arts give people the skills to manage their adrenaline and control their fight or flight responses.