Is Kung Fu good for your health? Yes — and also for your body and mind
It’s the 20th anniversary of The Matrix, one of the best Kung Fu movies ever.
And, in a totally unrelated coincidence, yesterday I gave a talk at the Royal Society of Medicine on Kung Fu — not as an academic, but as a Kung Fu student: as a martial artist.
The conference compared the medical culture in the UK with that of other countries (“east meets west”), with a particular focus on wellbeing.
But, for me, this was just an excuse to talk about my personal, physical, and spiritual training as a martial artist.
And I started with Crystal’s story.
Actually no, first I showed this clip from the matrix
Then I showed a picture of me doing White Crane Kung Fu, the style I have been practicing.
Then I talked about Crystal.
I met Crystal two years ago, at the grading to our next level of Kung Fu training.
Kung Fu grading is a stressful business, and it is difficult for everybody. But for Crystal, it should have been impossible. Or at least, so it seemed to Crystal one year before we met.
Crystal is still training today, but few people would have thought that possible when she started.
Crystal is featured in an episode of the 2016 BBC Programme The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, dedicated to the excessive use of medications for pain in our society.
At that time, Crystal was taking 30–40 painkiller pills a day: opiates, anti-inflammatory drugs, and drugs to counteract the side effects of the opiates. Her chronic pain was so bad that she would constantly be hunched over, or she would lie in bed on her back.
Crystal’s pain was primarily physical, although, as we find to be the case for many others with such health problems, the physical pain often coexists with depression, the two worsening one another.
In January 2016, Crystal stopped all medications over the course of two weeks, while starting to practise the slow, Suang Yang Tai Chi style of Kung Fu, and a few months later started the more active, hardstyle White Crane Kung Fu.
Here is a clip of the programme, showing my Chief Instructor, Dennis Ngo, helping Crystal. If you take the time to watch it all (3 minutes), you will see my Chief Instructor and my fellow students practicing Tai Chi. (BTW, beware of Tai Chi practitioners, as Tai Chi is a martial art: movements have fighting applications).
Today, Crystal rarely takes painkillers, and has learned, in her own words, to “exercise through the pain rather than remaining still and turning to pills”.
I still meet her regularly when I go to Dennis’ classes.
Crystal’s journey has made me reflect on the indissolubility of mental and physical health: on the bond between the mind, the brain, and the body. Her experience demonstrates that you cannot address one dimension without addressing the others.
So, is Kung Fu good for health?
There is a remarkable scarcity of good-quality studies in this field, but the signal that is coming out of science is pointing in the right direction.
Most of the research on the health benefits of martial art is on Tai Chi, which focusses on developing a stable, balanced stance, on improving flexibility, and on using breathing as part of a light meditative element.
There have been literally thousands of studies on the benefits of Tai Chi on health, and around 200 of those benefits are in mental health. The most recent scientific appraisal of the evidence finds that Tai Chi improves balance, reduces falls in the elderly, and helps with depression and pain.
Like with Crystal.
The scientific evidence of the health benefits for the ‘hard-style’ of Kung Fu is more difficult to gather, simply because there haven’t been many good clinical studies.
However, there is some evidence that both Kung Fu and other martial arts, can help improve physical strengths and bone density, as well as reducing stress and improving mood and quality of life.
Of course, we know that physical exercise has anti-pain and antidepressant effects, and the internet is full of personal accounts on how exercise helps with sadness and even with suicidal ideation.
Experimental studies show that this might be due to the ability of physical exercise to dampen the activity of the immune system, and research from my group, amongst others, has shown that both pain and depression are associated with a hyperactive immune system, which participates to the development and maintenance of the symptoms.
But is Kung Fu more than just simply an intense physical exercise?
(This is a rhetorical question, of course — the answer is yes, and the explanation is right below).
Kung Fu is more than just intense physical exercise.
Kung Fu would be considered, in technical terms, a ‘complex intervention’, meaning that there are multiple ‘active ingredients’ that could help therapeutically, spanning biology, psychology, alternative medicine, and spirituality.
First of all, not everybody knows that the words “Kung Fu” actually translate as hard work. In China, a calligrapher with excellent brush-work is said to possess good Kung Fu. The term is not just for a skilled fighter.
The Philosopher Zhuang Zi (4th Century BCE) first wrote about the pursuit of enlightenment through the “dedicated practice of a skill.”
These practices require a sustained application of effort over a period of time.
If you are interested in learning more on this topic, you can read a recent blog written by one of the Kung Fu instructors in our club, and fellow Medium writer, Danil Mikhailov.
Or, read his book.
But the spiritual element of Kung Fu does not stop only with the pursuit of perfection.
Kung Fu has taught me the acceptance of physical pain, and that pain is a normal part of learning.
“We are martial artists — we all live with pain. If you train hard and regularly, you will know what pain is”, as my Chief Instructor writes in his blog.
Of course, pain is never just physical; surviving a hard session of training, or getting punched and kicked while sparring, has also taught me about acceptance of emotional pain, about overcoming fears, and finding a stamina I never thought I had.
And of course, clinical studies have shown that acceptance of physical and emotional pain is associated with less stress and better quality of life.
Then, if you accept the principles of alternative medicine, Kung Fu also mobilises the same mental and physical spirituality that is accessed, in different ways, by yoga and meditation, both of which are also beneficial for health.
My instructor once said to me that focussing on breathing as part of Kung Fu training helps to clear negative thoughts.
And we know that meditation has a positive impact on mental health.
Of course, we should also not forget that Kung Fu is a martial art, and thus all the movements that we learn have the technical potential to be lethal.
Thus, Kung Fu has taught me the fragility of life.
Action movies, with their lengthy fighting scenes, trick the viewers into thinking that it takes a lot of blows to take someone down.
But Kung Fu has taught me the truth: that you could be killed in an instant, by a single blow of a bare hand.
Understanding the fragility of life has enhanced my compassion, acceptance, and gratitude.
And compassion meditation is an effective psychological intervention for depression.
Finally, Kung Fu has offered me a strong, reliable and supportive social environment. Kung Fu students are all “brothers and sisters”.
And of course, as many students spend years in training, people grow older together: children become adults, move from school to work, marry, have children.
And we know that social support is essential for good mental health.
To be clear, I do not think that Kung Fu (or yoga, or physical exercise) is the “cure-all” solution for every pain, for every person, nor for every occasion.
But we should never dismiss nor forget that promoting mental health also means physical exercise, personal development, and spirituality.
A previous version of this blog was published in 2017.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE THE MATRIX