How to Stay Young

If you have been watching this series, then please read on, if not, then watch the first two episode on BBC iPlayer first.

The BBC’s How to Stay Young, which is on while we’re training hard on a Thursday evening, is ticking a lot of boxes for Aikido so far.

Episode 1 featured a test which involves standing up from a cross legged position on the ground, which highlights the muscle strength, or lack of, in your legs and core as well as your balance. Martial arts are notorious for focusing on leg and core strength and for developing balance and coordination. Aikido practice in particular includes repeated standing up after being thrown or pinned, which will work your legs and balance similarly to the featured test exercise.

Next they highlighted that stress is a major cause of premature aging, possibly more so than an inactive lifestyle. There are many disciplines focused on relaxation, like Yoga and meditation, but calm and relative inactivity isn’t for everyone and there are plenty of more energetic ways to relieve stress. We practice diligently but in a friendly, fun and lighthearted atmosphere and we always feel good at the end of the session. Indeed, the very first exercise we do is designed to let out stress and tension before we train with each other and incorporates movement and shouting followed by deep breathing.

The section on diet I will leave alone as Aikido has little or nothing to do with food (though some Japanese instructors advocate macrobiotics) but the next section was possibly the most interesting from our point of view. They compared dancing to gym workouts for increasing muscle strength and dancing came out on top, for two reasons:

  1. Dancing works the whole body every time you do it whereas gym workouts frequently focus on one muscle or muscle group in isolation and a poorly planned regimen may miss out some areas completely; and
  2. The signals from the nervous system required to instruct the muscle fibres to make the different dance moves, especially when learning a new dance, will stimulate and strengthen the neuromuscular junctions, which connect the motor neurons to the muscle fibres, which in turn strengthens the muscles.

From this point of view, Aikido is very like dancing. There is a large range of footwork and synchronised body movements to learn; more different techniques than hay in a haystack and associated breakfalls as well as various complimentary exercises and weapons forms and you really will find yourself using muscles you didn’t know you had.

The next suggestion was that pets relieve stress. Sorry, but no dogs on the mat!

Episode two focused on the effect of aging on the brain and the causes of cognitive change. According to the study in Edinborough, genetics only accounts for 25% of this age related degradation. Again, they carried out a study comparing a complex activity, table tennis, with a simpler activity, walking. The surprising result was that walking, though no strategy, fast reactions or hand to eye condition is involved, was actually more beneficial for overall cognitive performance due to the increased blood-flow caused by the greater aerobic exertion involved and the MRI scans showed a large increase in the size of the walkers’ hippocampi, improving memory and the ability to learn. However, the table tennis playing sample had a large increase in cortical thickness but the researchers put this down to learning new skills rather than the nature of the activity itself. I have been practicing Aikido for over seven and a half years and I’m still learning new things as it’s such a massive syllabus with a wealth of techniques and variations with layers of detail to peel away as you learn more about the movements. Similar too, to the life drawing example, every partner you practice each technique with is a new challenge and you will have to adapt your understanding to fit in with the way their body moves.

They next suggested that the best new skill to learn for cortical stimulation is a new language. If you start training in Aikido, you will quickly need to pickup a large Japanese vocabulary because Japanese is used throughout Aikido dojo all over the world so that you can practice anywhere and still understand. I’m not saying that Aikido will make you a fluent native speaker but we’re ticking lots of boxes with just one new activity.

Two things that haven’t yet come into the Aikido repertoire are blood transfusions and applying an electrical charge across our scalps but you never know what to expect from one of Kanetsuka Shihan’s courses and there’s always the chance that he’s been watching the series too.

So in summary, I would argue that Aikido is not only comparable to the benefits of dancing proposed by this series but it is in fact superior as it ticks all of the same boxes as dancing and simultaneously ticks many of the other boxes for other activities at the same time so please come and join us at the Judo club tomorrow night now that this series has ended and you have an opening in your Thursday evenings.