Winter is coming: The importance of physical health.
I remember times when the word “Winter” triggered mostly positive emotions: Snow (yay!), holidays, Christmas and baked apples. Today, there seems to be a certain feeling of doom and gloom connected to winter time, maybe partly due to my age, and surely thanks to the pandemic experience of the last years. Winter will be a hard time for health services around the world – at least in the Northern hemisphere, where it actually will be cold in the next months. It is already hard to get a doctor’s appointment, and waiting times in hospitals are so long that in England people die in ambulances parked in front of a emergency departments, because there is simply nobody to treat them.
A broken leg or an even more severe injury might turn into an actual catastrophe at the peak of winter. Maybe we should be careful. Maybe we should lay low. Maybe we should stay at home and in safety, rather than risking anything in training.
But is that true?
The Covid pandemic has shown once more: Physical activity and a healthy lifestyle are an important factor to be resilient when disaster strikes. Healthy, fit people were less at risk to get severely ill when contracting the virus, and they were less likely to fall sick in the first place.
To put one notion to rest right away: Healthy people do get sick and they can die in a pandemic. Being careless or resist vaccination just “because I am fit and eat the right things and it won’t matter to me” is – pardon my French – piss stupid and also selfish to the max. The talk of “underlying conditions” has made my blood boil during the last years. “Only old people and those with underlying conditions die” doesn’t make anything better. Almost everybody has some underlying condition, and surely everybody ages. That doesn’t make life less valuable.
Yes, we all know the “grandmother who smoked 40 cigarettes a day and still lived to see her 90s birthday.” We heard Winston Churchill, an obese alcoholic, claiming the secret to his old age was “no sports”. But that’s statistics. There is a saying that people who are physically fit don’t live longer, but die healthier. At the best of days, that might be true. (And it would still mean a much better quality of life and activity up to an old age.) In times of crisis, however, the benefit of lifelong physical activity become brutally obvious.
A study from California, including 48,440 patients, comes to the conclusion that physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. American scientists were “lucky” to have a great setup, with very fit patients as well as those living an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle, in a nation that failed Covid response in a spectacular way.
Patients with COVID-19 who were consistently inactive had a greater risk of hospitalisation (OR 2.26; 95% CI 1.81 to 2.83), admission to the ICU (OR 1.73; 95% CI 1.18 to 2.55) and death (OR 2.49; 95% CI 1.33 to 4.67) due to COVID-19 than patients who were consistently meeting physical activity guidelines. Patients who were consistently inactive also had a greater risk of hospitalisation (OR 1.20; 95% CI 1.10 to 1.32), admission to the ICU (OR 1.10; 95% CI 0.93 to 1.29) and death (OR 1.32; 95% CI 1.09 to 1.60) due to COVID-19 than patients who were doing some physical activity.
Consistently meeting physical activity guidelines was strongly associated with a reduced risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes among infected adults. We recommend efforts to promote physical activity be prioritised by public health agencies and incorporated into routine medical care.
A Korean study with 212 768 adults (age ≥20 years) who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, has an even bigger data pool. It comes to the conclusion that adults who engaged in the recommended levels of physical activity were associated with a decreased likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 infection, severe COVID-19 illness and COVID-19 related death. The findings suggest that engaging in physical activity has substantial public health value and demonstrates potential benefits to combat COVID-19.
In Germany, Wilhelm Bloch, Professor for sports medicine at the German Sport University Cologne, summarizes the results of these and many other studies in a simple statement: The human organism is made for activity, not a sedentary lifestyle. With modern technology and the growing challenge of debodification (here our blogpost regarding this topic), we need to work even harder on that. Pandemic lockdowns didn’t help that at all.
The right kind of medicine.
Physical activity is medicine – sometimes even a cure for illnesses, and always great prevention. If it is done right. The wrong training can cause damage, and especially people with a habit to go into extremes tend to engage in activity that is not beneficial for their long term health.
The biggest risk is ignoring pain and overstretching the limits. Sound bites of the sort that “you always have to get out of your comfort zone”, “you need to stay positive”or “pain is weakness leaving the body” are great fun sometimes. Often the pain is not worth it, especially when it is here to stay.
Learning to treat our body in an appropriate way, so it will be with us for a long life and not just during a few years of peak performance, is as much part of the challenge as it is to not give up on training as soon as the wear and tear of advancing age sets in.
The results of the Covid studies show us how essential it is that we care for body and mind, and no physical activity does this like martial arts. It works for every age, is highly individual, and it is not just fun, but a holistic learning system with a mindful focus on body and mind. Martial arts can indeed be lifelong and intelligent, if done right.
Let’s end this article with a little list of typical health and fitness issues we come across in our everyday training. Then lets get back to the dojo – and make sure that neither Christmas break nor New Year resolutions distract us from regular, continuous training with lots of joy.
Sedentary lifestyle and bad posture are literally crippling the body. One small issue – tense shoulders, for example – can quickly turn into a whole set of physical problems. Headache, back ache, shoulder pain, inflamed muscles, “mouse hand” or “text thumb” (yes, both are a thing) are lifestyle diseases. When they turn chronic or lead to serious issues like a slipped disc, they are more than a nuisance. Martial arts addresses all these topics straightforward: Discovering the own body, developing awareness for movement, for stability and rooting are basis of every complete fighting system.
Stress, anxiety, depression are as much a matter of the mind as of the body. The connections between body and mind are often neglected in modern life – and as much as this statement is an often repeated platitude, it is still true. The “Missing Link” in the name of our community refers, among other issues, to the importance of this connection. Our body is a gate to our emotions. Martial arts help to open it, more than most other forms of physical exercise.
The modern human mind is at risk of constantly being overwhelmed with pieces and snippets of colourful, screaming, moving information, and it can be difficult to calm down to relax. We don’t live in a situation that requires constant fight or flight reactions. When we actually encounter high stress, the risks are usually not physical, so while our body reacts with high adrenaline production, we do not remove this stress hormone by means of physical activity. It can become quite tricky to calm down and relax when on the other hand we dont fire up our body to create a balance. Martial arts training provides positive stress and the means to cope with it, mentally and physically.
A common worry of people starting martial arts: Am I not too stiff for this kind of training? Don’t I need the skills of a contortionist to practice? This misconception is furthered by martial arts movies and action scenes that are performed by outstanding actors – and competition. No matter whether it is televised MMA fights or the Olympic Karate tournament, all of these fights are peak performances of highly talented athletes in their prime. This is not what real martial arts is about. If anything, regular training will help to become more flexible – it is a result, not a requirement.
Martial arts are highly mindful when it comes to the use of the own body, and that leads to an increase in Motor Skills. It is easy to underestimate their importance, but when we talk about “modern application” of Karate, we do not refer to the ability to fight off assaillants in the dark back alleys of Manchester or London… we mean the life-prolonging ability to stay in touch with your own limps. As one example: Femoral neck fracture is one of the most common causes of death in elderly people. Maintaining a high level of flexibility and control over your body can be literally life-saving.
Some people love it. Some people hate it. Cardio training is among the most neglected tasks of personal health care, yet cardiovascular illnesses are among the worst killers in our modern world. For those of us that do not enjoyed prolonged running, cycling or swimming, most martial arts offer the perfect kind of interval training – a change from intense movement to short breaks, with the added benefit of individual control over the training intensity. On top of that: A good martial arts lesson doesn’t feel like work. It is fun. (Does anybody dare to oppose this statement?)