Can Martial Arts Save Your Life?

Can Martial Arts Save Your Life?

It was a typical early Friday morning in Johannesburg. Bleary-eyed commuters sat in the
traffic uttering the obligatory “TGIF”, maybe occasionally treating themselves to a thought about the weekend yet to come.

Car doors locked and windows sealed, each person insulated from the drama ensuing one road away into the suburbs. Police and security forces were engaged in a cat and mouse chase.

A group of armed robbers were running and jumping walls doing their best to evade arrest.

Joining in on the chase, a colleague and I traveled some blocks into the suburb. We
positioned ourselves in a street where we thought the most likely trajectory of the suspects would be.

We soon realized we were in the wrong place, and I hitched a lift to a better spot on the back of a security pickup van.

As we approached a sharp bend in the road, shots rang out to our left. In his enthusiasm to get to the scene, the driver picked up speed. In a moment of dread, I realized that centrifugal force was not on my side and I was going to be thrown from the back of the vehicle.

I managed to lean back so that my feet could hit the edge of the pavement first and then executed a tried and trusted forward roll, a  Mae Ukemi in Judo speak.

The backplate of my body armor absorbed much of the fall and I heaved myself up, noting that part of my elbow had been scraped off on a strip of concrete.

A dose of adrenaline sorted out the pain, and I continued on my mission with the vague recognition that later in the day, aches and pains would be payment. 

Following the sounds of action, I ran into an upmarket residential complex, which had just been converted into a high-class version of the Alamo. Spotting a circle of policemen standing around a body in a yellow shirt, I approached the area only to watch life slip away from the young figure sprawled on the suburban grass.

Perhaps if his life circumstances were different, he would have met a better end.

The chase was over, a medic patched my elbow and signed documents confirming that this young suspect was never going home. 

Are Martial Arts Really Effective?

It was not the first time that my early Judo training has kept me on my feet.

Being an active person, I have had a few sudden life-changing moments, surviving tree falls, rolling away from bicycle accidents, and attempting various childhood stunts that started with the words “I wonder if I could…’’?

I recall my first martial arts lesson.

The spongy feel of the mats beneath my feet and the introduction to the various falling techniques of Judo called Ukemi. There is no question that Judo has effectively saved me from occasional concussions and reduced the list of broken bones that already exists. 

Judo Class

I was nine when I enrolled in that first Judo class. In later years I was to add Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Thai Boxing, Jeet Kune Do Concepts, MMA Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and combat shooting to my martial skills.

It seems funny to me that martial arts have contributed many times to the health and safety of my life, but it would take approximately 27 years before I used those skills in a violent confrontation against another human being.

So how then can martial arts save your life?

To answer this question, and make writing this article a little more challenging, I have avoided the bodies of anecdotal information on the internet and have reverted to academic papers as my source. 

The Health Benefits of Martial Arts 

Before we consider that you may need martial arts to defend yourself from a knife-wielding attacker who wants to relieve you of your cell phone, let’s do a little risk assessment of your life.

It’s far more likely that the cause of your death will be found in a tub of ice cream than in a backstreet alley (unless “Backstreet Alley” is a new flavor in the dessert section of your local supermarket). 

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) hosted at the University of Washington, cardiovascular disease took 17,79 million people’s lives worldwide in 2017.

Second on the list was cancer 9,56 million deaths. Homicide only managed to make number 17 on the list with 405,346 deaths.

Homicide rates become a much more prevalent form of death for people aged 15 to 49 years, however cardiovascular disease, cancer, and HIV/AIDs still top the list. 

It’s clear that one of the best forms of self-defense is to make sensible life choices and keep your heart in good working order.

Martial Arts Studies

In a paper titled ‘Martial Arts as Sport and Therapy’, Burke and his band of researchers refer to a ratio of risks and benefits during the endeavour of martial arts. On the benefit side there is a strong selection of evidence that martial arts can contribute to a long and healthy life. Here is a smattering of information on the topic:

Study 1

Saraiva et al., (2018), studied adolescents performing Judo and Muay Thai. Over a 16-week period they showed that martial arts training led to a decrease in systolic blood pressure in normotensive (people with normal blood pressure) adolescents. The conclusion was that the training could assist in the prevention of cardiovascular disease in young people.

Study 2

Douris et al. 2013 looked at arterial stiffness in a group of twenty middle age subjects (arterial stiffness is related to an increased risk of coronary disease). The study group included 10 practitioners of the Korean martial art Soo Bahk Do. The control group were described as sedentary people. The study showed that the martial arts group had less arterial stiffness than their control counterparts and that long term exposure to martial arts training like Soo Bahk Do could reduce the “age related effects on arterial stiffness” and therefore increase arterial health. 

Study 3

Origua Rios et al. (2018) reviewed 28 studies that considered the health benefits of so-called “hard martial arts” in young, middle-aged, and older adults. In their review, the researchers were able to show that martial arts positively benefit people with their balance, postural control, cognitive functioning, and psychological health. 

There is of course the dark side to the force. 

Over the years I have seen martial artists perform a host of self-destructive activities including hundreds of knuckle push-ups and forward rolls on concrete floors (physiotherapists must love these people).

This noble quest to damage the body is often driven by unscientific training methods or even worse, performed in the name of tradition. 

One of the biggest myths ever perpetuated in the martial arts is that feats of breaking solid objects are a sign of one’s ability to land devastating blows during interpersonal violence.

This is akin to smearing bitumen on your chest and dancing naked under an elm tree as a cure for pneumonia.

While breaking wooden boards or even worse bricks, might be a tool for passing through mental barriers, it is also a sure way for creating long term musculoskeletal injuries that will follow you to the last days of your life. 

Before you non-traditional martial artists leave this screen with a slight smirk on your face, consider that you are not exempt from some of this body abuse. 

Rainey (2009), reviewed 207 injuries in a study of 55 MMA practitioners. The head, neck, and face sustained the highest injury levels (38,2%). The researchers found that lower belt levels were ‘’significantly’’ more likely to sustain these injuries.

Clearly, a review of progressive training methods and the use of safety equipment needs consideration in some gyms.

The Mental Benefits of Martial Arts

Now that we’ve taken care of the body, what about protecting the software that runs the show?

Mental benefits of martial arts

In 2015, the  World Health Organisation estimated that about 4,4% (322 million) of the world’s population suffers from depression and 3,6% (264 million) suffer from anxiety disorders.

That’s not to mention the millions suffering from PTSD as a result of war, sexual and interpersonal violence.

Then there is the staggering estimate that up to 10% of our children suffer from learning disabilities. With one person committing suicide every 40 seconds worldwide (WHO | Suicide data 2019), clearly, there are a lot of stressed and unhappy people.

If we are going to be talking about saving your life, we need to find ways to enhance the quality of that life. 

Martial Arts Studies

Step aside unhappiness, a friendly black belt is at hand. Martial arts have been shown to provide a string of benefits that provide mental support.

Here are a few to consider:

Study 1

Bird et al. (2019) ran a 10-week MMA (mixed martial arts) community program exposing a group of young men who were defined as “at-risk” for suicide. They were able to record that participants reported general improvements in mental health, wellbeing, improved coping skills, and confidence levels. 

Study 2

Willing et al. (2019), placed combat-deployed veterans, who were suffering from PTSD symptoms in bi-weekly Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes for a five-month period. The study showed that participants had reduced PTSD symptoms and decreased symptoms in depression, anxiety, and alcohol use. 

Study 3

Rassovsky et al. (2019), used salivary testing to detect the presence of oxytocin, the social affiliation or ‘’cuddle hormone’’ in 68 Jiu-Jitsu practitioners. It was established that oxytocin production increased specifically during high-intensity grappling sessions, or what Jiu-Jitsu practitioners call ‘’rolling’’. This would account for the sense of kinship that is felt after a good roll and also points toward therapeutic applications for people with social dysfunction disorders.

Study 4

Moore et al., (2018), conducted a randomized controlled trial on 283 secondary school students. During the trial, the participants were exposed to a ‘’martial arts-based psycho-social intervention’’.  The study reported an improvement in levels of self-efficacy and resilience. The authors note that people with higher levels of resilience are less likely to become victims of bullying. Likewise, they note that victims of bullying show lower levels of self-efficacy than those who are not bullied. 

It is worth noting that while very little is mentioned of kicking and punching, mental attributes such as self-efficacy and self-confidence feature strongly in numerous studies, even ones looking at actual attacks.

So, what about actual self-defense?

Can You Use Martial Arts for Self-Defense?

It’s ironic that of the hundreds of papers written on the health and mental benefits of martial arts, the hardest to find are conclusive papers indicating that martial arts actually perform the purpose they were designed for.

To make things more confusing, the world of martial arts and self-defense has divided itself up into distinct enclaves.

There are traditional martial arts, functional martial arts, combative and self-defense classes. Debate rages as to which of these approaches creates the most effective self-defense practitioner.

For purposes of simplicity, and at the risk of having my toes expertly stomped on by the voices of the industry, I have not referred to these distinctions, nor to the technical aspects of various systems.

I’ll be using the term ‘martial arts’ as defined by Renden and colleagues as ‘traditions of combat practices such as Kickboxing, Karate, Krav-maga’.

These matters have been discussed in other posts on this blog.

Most research seems to focus on three groups that use their self-defense skills:

  • Police officers
  • Women attempting to prevent sexual attacks
  • Scholars who have to face school-yard bullying

I am happy to report that there is research confirming that self-defense training can certainly give you the edge in a violent confrontation.

Martial Arts Studies

Here is some noteworthy academic research on the topic:

Study 1

There is a time when every cop needs to go ‘’hands-on’’ as he or she may face a use-of-force incident.

Torres (2020), cites a range of articles explaining that officers with martial art training were able to perform better in self-defense and arrest scenarios.

Torres was able to show that officers that received martial arts training and had good levels of perceived use-of-force self-efficacy (self-confidence when determining how much force must be used in a situation) and were equipped with higher levels of confidence when going hands-on.

Study 2

In a fascinating project that looked at incidents of sexual assault of Kenyan schoolgirls, Sinclair et al. (2013), studied 522 participants of a six-week delf defense program.

The researchers reported that ‘incidents of sexual assault decreased from 26,4% at baseline to 9,2% at follow-up’. Incident levels within the control group remained unchanged.

It is disturbing to note that more than half of the participants used the skills they learned to prevent sexual assault in the year that followed the training.

Study 3

Brecklin & Ullman (2005), set out to establish how women responded physically and psychologically to rape attacks after receiving self-defense and assertiveness training.

In a multivariate study, they found that women that had received training before an assault reported that the offender stopped the attack or became less aggressive when they resisted the attack.

Study 4

Renden et al. (2015), used an online questionnaire to study 922 Dutch police officers and their perceptions of how their arrest and self-defense skills training (ASDS) prepared them for violent encounters on duty.

The study looked at a variety of issues such as frequency of ASDS training, the type of training, anxiety related to violent encounters, experience on the job, and prior martial art experience.

What is notable is that they found that officers that had previous martial arts experience reported higher levels of performance effectiveness. They also extracted some important lessons that could help us all find the right training to keep us safe in the real world:

Frequent Training

It was established that the officers needed to be trained more frequently to build their skill base and experience. This applies to all of us when choosing a self-defense
the program, more hours is better.

Realistic Training

Officers needed more ‘’realistic training’’. This specifically related to training in high
pressure situations and its effect on anxiety, which was found to be the most
significant negative contributor to an officer’s effectiveness in a violent confrontation.
At some point in your training, you are going to need to progressively apply your
skills against a non-complying, unpredictable opponent. Without this, you are fooling

Alternative Skills

Lastly, the researchers noted that experienced officers applied alternative skills to
those learned in their training. This pointed to the fact that they had minimal
confidence in what they were taught and through alternative training or simply
through hard experience, had figured out what works. In other words, it’s worth
finding technical training that is properly geared for violent encounters. Here are
some additional posts that might help you find the right training.

Cast your mind back to that first martial art lesson. The strange feeling of the stiff white Gi on your skin, the smell of the gym, and the rattle of punchbags.

Perhaps your expectation was that in time you could render an attacker helpless with a sharp punch or a joint snapping lock.

There is no guarantee that this expectation will be fulfilled.

There is however a very good chance that with some sweat and persistence your hard practiced martial moves will lead you to a healthier life, enriched with confidence and self-belief.

When considered in totality, it may well mean that martial arts may not only save your life one day but every day.

References & Further Reading

Willing, A. E., Girling, S. A., Deichert, R., Wood-Deichert, R., Gonzalez, J., Hernandez, D., . .
. Kip, K. E. (2019). Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Training for US Service Members and Veterans.
Bird , N., McCarthy, G., & K, O. (2019). Exploring the Effectiveness of an Integrated Mixed
Martial Arts and Psychotherapy Intervention for Young Men’s Mental Health. Am J
Mens Health., 13(1).
Black Belt Wiki. (2021, January 8). Judo – Mae Ukemi. Retrieved from Black Belt Wiki:
Black Belt Wiki. (2021, January 8). Soo Bahk Do ® – Korean Martial Arts Style. Retrieved
from Black Belt Wiki:
Brecklin, L. R., & Ullman, S. E. (2005, June 6). Self-Defense or Assertiveness Training and
Women’s Responses to Sexual Attacks. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(6),
738-762. Retrieved from
Douris, P. C., Ingenito, T., Piccirillo, B., Herbst, M., Petrizzo, J., Cherian, V., . . . Jung, M.-K.
(2013). Martial arts training attenuates arterial stiffness in middle aged adults. Asian J
Sports Med, 201-7.
Learning disabilities affect up to 10 percent of children. (2013, April 18). Retrieved from
Mental Health and Substance Use. (2019). Retrieved from World Healh Organization :
Moore , B., Woodcock, S., & Dudley, D. (2019). Developing Wellbeing Through a
Randomised Controlled Trial of a Martial Arts Based Intervention: An Alternative to
the Anti-Bullying Approach. International Journal of Environmental Research and
Public Health, 16(1):81.
Origua, S., Marks, J., Estevan, I., & Barnett, L. M. (2017). Health benefits of hard martial arts
in adults: a systematic review. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-9.
Rainey, L. C. (2009). Determining the Prevalence and Assessing the Severity of Injuries in
Mixed Martial Arts Athletes. N Am J Sports Phys Ther, 190–199.
Rassovsky, Y., Harwood, A., Zagoory-Sharon, O., & Feldman , R. (2019). Martial arts
increase oxytocin production. Retrieved from Scientific Reports :
Renden, P. G., Landman, A., Savelsbergh, G. J., & Oudejans, R. R. (2015). Police arrest
and self-defence skills: performance under anxiety of officers with and without
additional experience in martial arts. Applied Ergonomics, 1496-1506.
Renden, P. G., Nieuwenhuys, A., Savelsbergh, G. J., & Savelsbergh, R. R. (2015). Dutch
police officers’ preparation and performance of their arrest and self-defence skills: A
questionnaire study. Applied Ergonomics,, 49, 8-17. Retrieved from’+

Roser, M., & Ritchie, H. (2019). Causes of Death. Retrieved from Our World:
Saraiva, B. T., Raphael Mendes Ritti-Dias, R. M., Farah, B. Q., Suetake , V. Y., Diniz, T. A.,
Júnior, P. C., . . . Christofaro, D. G. (2018). CARDIOVASCULAR EFFECTS OF 16
Sports Medicine, Vol 24.
Sinclair, J., Sinclair, L., Otieno, E., Mulinge, M., Kapphahn, C., & Golden, N. H. (2013). A
Self-Defense Program Reduces the Incidence of Sexual Assault in Kenyan
Adolescent Girls. Journal of Adolscent Health, -(-), 1-7.
Torres, J. (2018). Predicting law enforcement confidence in going ‘hands-on’: the impact of
martial arts training, use-of-force self-efficacy, motivation, and apprehensiveness.
Police Practice and Research, 21(3).
World Health Organization. (2017). Depression and Other Common. Geneva: World Health

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