Adults can have fun in Tae Kwon Do as well, you know! Below is an article I found discussing the health benefits of Taekwondo for Adults Over 40.
In an exclusive interview with TaekwondoScience, Dr. Jan Lodder discusses his research on the health effects of Taekwondo for older adults
By Isaac Michaels, MPH | www.TaekwondoScience.com | September 9, 2014
TAEKWONDO has attained worldwide popularity. However, despite widespread participation and concerns about Taekwondo-related injuries, the health effects of Taekwondo are not yet well understood. One researcher who is passionate about advancing scientific understanding in this area is Dr. Jan Lodder of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Dr. Lodder received his medical training and PhD from Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He has served as a staff neurologist at Maastricht University Hospital for nearly 30 years, where he was recently appointed as a professor of vascular neurology. In addition to his work with patient care and teaching, Dr. Lodder has authored an extensive number of scientific papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals.
Most amazingly, however, Dr. Lodder (now 66 years old and semi-retired) is an experienced and dedicated Taekwondo practitioner. He holds a third-degree black belt certified by the World Taekwondo Federation, and is a licensed Taekwondo instructor. Together with another trainer, he runs a Taekwondo club (www.chun-ji.be) near his home in Reimst, Belgium, as well as another club in collaboration with the university hospital just across the border in Maastricht (www.sekwondo.be).
Recently, Dr. Lodder has been turning the focus of his research towards Taekwondo, and his findings so far suggest that Taekwondo may be an effective tool for improving health in older adults.
The conversation below is an edited and condensed version of my interview with Dr. Lodder.
Q. What is your experience with martial arts, and how were you first introduced to Taekwondo?
A. As a medical student I practiced Karate for a couple of years, but eventually did not manage to combine it with a busy study program. However, my interest in the martial arts always remained.
In 2001, my 6-year old daughter wanted to practice a martial art! A Taekwondo teacher had just started classes in our village a couple months earlier, so we went there to take a look. However, 6-year-old madam ninja refused to join the class without daddy by her side – and although I said to her that Taekwondo is something for young girls and not for 53-year-old daddies, it was of no avail: she forced me to stay and join in. So I stayed that evening, and the next week, and never left.
Q. What inspired you to combine your research interests with your Taekwondo activities?
A. Soon after starting Taekwondo practice (training twice per week), I noticed changes: my mood and general physical fitness improved. In particular, I noticed improvements in leg flexibility, power, motor speed, motor coordination, and overall body movement. It greatly surprised me, as I was 53 and therefore I thought far over the hill! So I wondered whether there were any records in the literature about Taekwondo having these effects. When I did a literature search, I found only a few studies that I thought showed promising results; however, the quality of these studies raised questions, and I was not convinced of their validity. I decided to do a study myself, and this became the Sekwondo Study.
I had some experience in conducting research with people as subjects, and this was not so different from what I had been doing as a clinical researcher; however, now the subjects were not patients, but rather healthy volunteers.
Apart from my personal experience, there was one more thing that made me confident that Taekwondo would yield measurable benefits: as a neurologist, I had been surprised a couple of times by the restoration of various functions in patients struck by neurological deficits from accident or disease who had always been in excellent physical shape. It seemed as though they had a kind of reserve in their functions that made them recover faster and better than patients who had lived more sedentary lives. What also surprised me many times was how patients with Parkinson’s disease (a ‘degenerative’ illness – which means that the symptoms can be treated but the basic cause cannot be stopped) functionally improved the moment they started to increase their physical activity.
Also, thinking as a neurologist, I hypothesized that complex physical activity and movement patterning are structured at a high level of complexity in the nervous system – which cannot be elsewhere than the brain, and even there at the highest level, the neo-cortex. Other kinds of physical activity have been shown to improve cognitive functions, but it could well be that the more complex the activity is that is practiced, the more ‘higher’ brain functions will benefit. Therefore, Taekwondo training might be better in that respect than ‘simple’ activities such as running or biking – but this remains to be shown.
Any kind of exercise is better than none at all; however, some exercises may do more than others. Indeed the behavioral benefit by physical activities in children with behavioral problems may be most significant if those activities are more complex. So, regarding Taekwondo, I think a number of things are promising for further scientific exploration.
Apart from the complexity of behavioral patterning in Taekwondo (consider poomsae, for example), there is another aspect that sets it apart from many other sports: that is its dynamic character. Although a bit contentious, there is evidence that practicing Tai Chi both improves balance, and reduces the risk of falling accidents in elderly people. The movement patterns of Tai Chi resemble those of Taekwondo, but they are more slowly executed. A number of people who I spoke with indicated that Tai Chi is fun and interesting, but: ‘for really old people’; ‘becomes boring’; ‘is rather expensive’; ‘is always the same’. On the contrary, Taekwondo: ‘makes you feel younger’; ‘is always challenging’; ‘is inexpensive’. These things may differ locally and between countries.
As we grow older, dynamic balance and motor coordination especially, are the physical fitness components that slowly and surely decrease. Many people only recognize this when they begin to experience problems: they are unstable (especially in the dark), or they become slow at performing complex movements (such as getting dressed). When they visit their general practitioner, they are likely referred to a physical therapist or rehab specialist; and when things become ‘medical’ they become expensive – or worse: their complaints are labeled as ‘inherent to age’. Taekwondo offers plenty of safe and do-able exercises to stimulate dynamic balance – which is necessary for dynamic movement and motor coordination.
Q. What is the SEKWONDO Study?
A. SEKWONDO is the acronym for the study: SEnior persons do taeKWONDO:
Feasibility, safety and subjective experience of a one year WTF Taekwondo training course for middle aged volunteers: The Sekwondo Study
Original Article. Gazzetta Medica Italiana Archivo per le Scienze Mediche 2013 June; 172(6):433-41
“Consequently, it is still unclear whether taekwondo-based training in middle-aged people is feasible and safe. Therefore, we performed a study in seniors to measure the feasibility of such training program as inferred from the number (and reasons) of dropouts and from the incidence and severity of injuries. Secondly, we report whether such training is fun rather than tedious, and whether it carries personal benefit as measure by the participants’ reported subjective evaluation…”
Abstract available here.
Q. Is Taekwondo generally a safe activity for middle-aged people? What are some of the risks of participating? Do you recommend any particular precautions be taken by middle-aged people who train in Taekwondo, or who are trying Taekwondo for the first time? Should Taekwondo coaches and instructors modify training programs for middle-aged people?
A. I’ll refer you to part of the discussion section of our first paper on safety.
One of the things we advise is to take a medical physical examination, including an exercise electrocardiogram. But in fact, as I used to say: ‘everyone who can stand and walk can practice Taekwondo – provided of course that they can comprehend the instructions.’ People who have certain complaints or ailments should always first consult their treating physician. There are a number of general precautions one should take as an instructor to make the chance of injury as low as possible; I have written these down in my SEKWONDO booklet. The sport-didactical approach is something to think about – although teaching a movement art to adults and elderly differs fundamentally in many aspects as compared with teaching children. But yes, I think that Taekwondo instructors should acknowledge these differences and adapt their teaching style.
Q. What are some of the beneficial (or therapeutic) health effects of Taekwondo for middle-aged people?
A. First of all, we may say that Taekwondo practice by adults and elderly novices is do-able, safe, and fun (at least by subjective judgement).
The primary aim of our study was the evaluation of integral balance maintenance – as measured via a sophisticated method by an international expert in the field of balance research: Dr. Herman Kingma (who also happens to work in Maastricht). As a result of the study, we found that participants corrected a balance provocation more by using a correction movement to the front. They did this by making use of fore-foot dynamics, the way younger people do. Forward correction of a balance shift allows a person eight degrees to bend forward, whereas backwards allows only four degrees.
As a neurologist, I know from experience that many elderly people with neurological problems from a falling accident are those who fell backwards (like a log) and hit their head on the floor. Instead, they should have corrected forward where they would have had twice the range of movement to correct for their unbalance. When we grow older, our system of balance correction changes into an unfavorable direction – it goes literally and figuratively backward! Taekwondo training seems to correct this deterioration!
Another important finding was improvement of some cognitive and mental speed functions. We are also currently analyzing data on muscle power, cardiac function, flexibility and motor coordination which have not yet been accepted for publication, and therefore I cannot comment on them here.
Q. What kinds of middle-aged people would benefit most from participating in Taekwondo?
A. I suspect that Taekwondo training is beneficial for everybody. Of course, there are many differences between people, but the most important thing (especially when one is ‘not that young anymore’) is that the training is safe, fun, and that certain functions improve. Some people are natural talents even in middle-age, whereas others soon complain: “I cannot do that. This is not for me!”; I always try to convince these people that it is not the quality of the performance (which certainly should never be measured against that of anybody else) but the act of practice which drives home the benefits of Taekwondo.
Q. How might future research further our understanding of Taekwondo’s health effects?
A. If one looks at epidemiological data (especially in Western society) I think it would show that Taekwondo has much more to offer on a societal level than is being realized. This requires further study, but we shouldn’t neglect the large and ever-growing part of the population that would benefit from Taekwondo practice, viz. the elderly. What needs to change are the mindsets of people involved in Taekwondo (across all levels worldwide, but especially those responsible for the sport’s infrastructure). There are an immense number of Taekwondo clubs in many countries; in Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, there is on average at least one Taekwondo club in every community. So no one has to travel far to harvest the individual and collective benefits of Taekwondo training. Governmental agencies should also become aware of such possibility; it could turn out that promoting Taekwondo on a large scale would be cheaper and more effective at improving population health than some of the existing public health programs already underway. The point is: a Taekwondo infrastructure already exists, and we should make use of it for improving health!
Isaac Michaels, MPH is the chief executive officer of TaekwondoScience. He received his masters degree in epidemiology from the University at Albany, and has 20 years of Taekwondo training.