Bruce Lee, one of the world’s most beloved martial artists, is full of wise quotes. One of my favorites is this old gem: “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” While we might not immediately think of martial arts as a sport for older adults, there are many ways in which martial arts and aging are a perfect match: Both are a combination of strength, experience, and wisdom. With facets of community building, mindfulness, and physical strength, martial arts can offer older adults an opportunity to tap into their deeper inner power.
Founded upon forging an unbreakable connection between one’s mind and body, it’s no coincidence that movies about martial arts almost always feature a revered older master whose skills exceed that of their younger students: to excel at this sport, life experience is paramount. And though forms like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) definitely require a young body that has a quick recovery speed, other types are more well-suited to the physique of older adults. The benefits that your aging loved one might gain from engaging in martial arts are profound: increased balance, strength, and concentration are just some of the effects they’ll experience from this ancient practice.
Why Martial Arts Is Worth Exploring for Older Adults
Doing martial arts regularly can help your aging loved one remain independent while aging in place. Especially for older adults who are easily bored or dislike mundane routine, martial arts offers an exciting way to stay in shape. It’s a great cardio workout that exercises the entire body from head to toe, builds muscle without needing to lift weights, and improves coordination. These challenging classes will also help your loved one gain flexibility, range of motion, and overall stamina. Meanwhile, they’ll be training their mind the whole time: all forms of martial arts combine aspects of meditation, mindfulness, and deep concentration. How’s that for a well-rounded exercise routine?
Martial arts isn’t just a fitness class — it’s a culture. Students are encouraged to focus on bettering themselves each day, whether through friendly competition or going after a prestigious belt. Ongoing training can boost your aging loved one’s confidence and self-esteem; learning how to defend themselves is very empowering. And if your loved one chooses to try martial arts, they’ll no doubt be in good company: more and more older adults these days are taking up this fascinating sport to sharpen their mind and body.
Best Types of Martial Arts for Your Aging Loved One
With so many varied forms of martial arts, there’s a range for your loved one to choose from.
Soft martial arts like Tai Chi are perfect for older adults just starting out. Comprised of a series of flowing movements executed mindfully, Tai Chi encourages practitioners to focus on the present moment and cultivate mindful awareness. If your aging loved one prefers gentler activity without physical contact, Tai Chi is a perfect choice. This graceful practice also works well as a complement to the harder martial arts — many people do Tai Chi in addition to something like Karate.
For older adults seeking a more dynamic form of martial arts that’s still safe, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu offers a high-intensity aerobic workout. Jiu-Jitsu typically involves a lot of ground work, which strengthens the entire body and improves hip mobility. Overall, it’s less impactful than many other types of martial arts. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu also serves as a nice introduction to grappling forms of martial arts, which use tactics like throwing the opponent and pinning them down.
Another popular type is the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu. With open-handed strikes instead of close-fisted, Wing Chun is less dangerous than other forms of Kung Fu, while still focusing on speed and precision.
If your loved one is keen for a challenge, they might try any of the harder martial arts like Kung Fu, Karate, Judo, Aikido, or Tae Kwan Do. Many of these classes will focus a lot of time on proper tumbling, rolls, and falling in a way that doesn’t produce injury.
It’s important to note that high-impact sports like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) are best avoided by older adults: they are incredibly demanding of the body—even younger participants often face serious injuries. Types of martial arts that involve striking (like Muay Thai boxing or MMA) use kicks and closed-fist punches to combat opponents, leading to higher risk of injury at any age.
Helping Your Loved One Get Started
When starting any form of martial arts, check with your loved one’s doctor beforehand to make sure it’s advised. Begin slowly with a relaxed schedule until their skill level and health are built up adequately, slowly increasing attendance as comfortable. Some older adults enjoy going to class upwards of 5 times a week, but your loved one will need to work up to this level. As martial arts for older adults continues to grow in popularity, more community centers and YMCAs are offering classes specifically for this demographic. Classes geared toward older adults can be tailored for different levels of fitness, injury issues, and mobility ranges. Whatever class they attend, make sure the instructor is familiar with the requirements and considerations of older adults’ bodies.
Many older adults who engage in this ancient practice notice a significant change in how they relate to their bodies, as well as the world around them. By focusing on the mental and spiritual aspects, martial arts can help your aging loved one exceed their own expectations of what they’re physical body is capable of. More than just a fun hobby, martial arts offers a way of life in which your loved one is constantly encouraged to bring together body, mind, and spirit.
If you want to learn how to help your aging loved one live their best life possible, Institute on Aging is proud to offer support for aging in place. Contact us today to find out more about our resources and services.