From ATA World Volume 19, Number 3 Fall 2012
Why do we practice Taekwondo? Let us count the many spiritual and physical benefits of the sport, from improved self-confidence to cardiovascular health. Now there’s another reason to stick with our martial arts regimen: An emerging body of science proves people who exercise have smarter, more functional brains.
Dr. John J. Ratey is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. A leading thinker on the brain-exercise connection, Ratey’s book cites various studies to establish the benefits of aerobic workouts on all areas of the brain—from increasing motivation to mood stabilization to something called neurogenesis. “We humans make new brain cells every day, and there’s nothing better than exercise to increase the number of cells we make,” he says. Exercise, it seems, is just as beneficial as reading, or even Sudoku, at lending additional horsepower to learning, memory, and critical thinking.
The benefits are not specific to Taekwondo, but Taekwondo is unique for combining the benefits of exercise with long-established brain-building activities, like memorization. According to Master Greg Moody, who owns several martial arts schools in Arizona and recently received his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University, his Taekwondo practice makes “graduate school look easy.” That’s because Taekwondo students “are asked to memorize 400 different moves, more than 400, all the way up to black belt,” says Moody. Plus, they are continually charged with applying these moves to a variety of self-defense visualizations, building creativity and critical thinking along the way. In other words: Always learning something new in Taekwondo makes it a lot easier to learn something new outside of Taekwondo.
This is true particularly among children. Ratey and his cohorts recently found that exercise leads to higher scores on standardized tests. But he cites even more evidence for the benefits of exercise in adults. For instance: “In the past 25 years we’ve learned [exercise is] useful in preventing Alzheimer’s,” says Ratey, noting there are nearly 1,600 scientific papers on the subject of the brain benefits of exercise in older adults. And recent studies uncovered benefits beyond disease prevention and basic brain maintenance – active seniors were found to improve intellectual functioning, whereas sedentary seniors demonstrated mental decline.
Learning Is Fun, Too
The only problem, cautions Ratey, is many adults get bored with their fitness routines. As quickly as they call it quits, they will lose the hard-won perks of yesterday’s workout. “The exercise must be consistent,” stresses Ratey. And, says Moody, it must be a continuous and interesting challenge.
Enter Taekwondo, which is perfectly suited to lifelong learning and fun. “Here’s the nice thing about what we do,” says Moody. “Every couple months you take a test and you try to move up the ranks.” Higher rank means new curriculum, new moves to memorize, and a whole new world of possibilities. “We’ve got decades of new material to teach,” said Moody. “So Taekwondo becomes increasingly more difficult – but also more fun – over the years.”
And as Grand Master Emeritus Soon Ho Lee knows, that lifelong commitment to continuous learning is what brings vitality to our lives. There is always more to learn, and that’s what makes us healthier, happier, and – yes – smarter. ATA