Fit to Fight – Exercise, Health and training to survive


There is a long-running debate concerning whether training in the art makes you fit for the art – as well as just generally fitter – or whether it is necessary to undergo fitness training to enable you to survive the rigours of the demands the arts place upon the student’s physical fitness?   It’s an argument I’ve explored before in this blog, and in countless conversations over the years with colleagues and students, but having recently become aware of the most current research in health and sport science, courtesy of an episode of the long-running BBC Science strand, Horizon a few weeks ago, I think it worth taking this latest information on board.

In recent years it seems that any long-cherished belief one might harbour about the power of the individual to nurture their health and physical, mental or psychological development is continually whittled away by a succession of revelations about the fundamentally genetic nature of our strengths …and limitations.  However, examined closely the once relatively simplistic argument of whether it is nature or nurture that prevails in any aspect of human development, it seems to have turned into a much more complex, and interesting, investigation of the degree to which it is the interaction between nature and nurture that defines outcomes in our growth as individuals.

In the programme, Dr. Michael Mosley, who has presented some of the best Horizon programmes in recent years, goes in search of the most current information on fitness, particularly in relationship to general health and longevity.  During the programme he reveals that his father died of Type 1 diabetes, and as a parent himself this is naturally of concern to him given the known genetic links to developing the condition.

Would it be possible to lessen his likely potential propensity to develop the disease?  Further, as an academic and an occasional TV presenter – professions which can involve irregular travel and disrupted routine, interspersed with significant sedentary periods – what would be the most efficient way to increase his general fitness?  He knew from general observation that gifted athletes, though dedicated – and receiving a great deal of focussed training often from an early age – seemed to get the most dramatic training effects from that conditioning, but what would it take to get radical improvements in the general life-fitness of a more average physical specimen?

Now this may not seem at first sight to be strictly relevant to the debate referred in my opening paragraph, but it is as well for those of us who teach the martial arts to remember that in order to fully pursue their studies our students must be in reasonable health, and that the majority of beginners sight improvement in fitness as one of their primary motivations in taking up classes.

Diet, Calories and Weight Loss

I’ve often been tempted to write the shortest, and most honest, diet book ever – it would consist of: one page with the legend, ‘Eat Less’; a second with the words, ‘Exercise More’; and all the others either blank or consisting of an exercise diary.  The basic recipe for weight loss is, after all, pretty simple: burn more calories than you take in; despite this all sorts of diet regimes consist largely of calorie counting and little else.  Now this is an approach that is doomed to failure because, as soon as you significantly cut the number of calories you take in per day – assuming you don’t take in multiples of the average amount – then your body, accustomed to a greater supply of fuel, goes into ‘starvation mode’ in order to conserve resources as a response to the apparent famine occurring.  The body ‘stock-piles’ these calories in the form of brown fat-cells, which are particularly difficult to burn.

Besides which, when you talk to someone determined to ‘lose weight’, you generally find that what they actually want is to reshape their body, to lose inches, not pounds.  What few appreciate is that, if you succeed in replacing excess fat with lean muscle tissue, you will probably end up weighing more as muscle is six times denser than fat.  Fully aware of this, modern medics are much more concerned with a patient’s Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a measure of the percentage of extraneous fat carried by an individual. Having said all that, it is certainly better from a health perspective not to be significantly overweight.

Going for the Burn

In order to measure the effectiveness of exercise and calorie burning for weight loss, the scientific method is to measure the ratio between oxygen and carbon dioxide produced. Surprisingly a decent running pace will only burn about 13 calories per hour (c.p.h), so 55 minutes of running fairly hard will burn off a small cappuccino, a small muffin and a banana.  It’s also worth bearing in mind that many people unconsciously eat more to compensate for the greater workload when they begin exercising.

Not all Fats are Equal

Nowadays most people will be familiar with the relative health values ascribed to saturated fats, mono and polyunsaturated fats etc., but it seems that the distinction we really need to understand is between sub-cutaneous and visceral fat.  Not all fat-stores are equal: sub-cutaneous fat is not all that bad, as it is fairly readily reduced by exercise and diet, but visceral fat (fat around the organs such as the liver or pancreas) is pretty damaging, as it is very difficult to shift – if you have a lot of the latter, you are categorised as a ‘tofi’ (thin on the outside, fat on the inside) – and you are more liable to suffer from diabetes.  Dr. Mosley was understandably more concerned with this aspect on a personal basis given his family history.

In the programme they had him eat a fry-up and then go for a long walk (90 minutes at a brisk pace); the anticipation was that this would trigger the production of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which it did, reducing the fat in his bloodstream by a third – so far, so successful, but perhaps not entirely practical, as he was unlikely to be able to spare one and a half hours to walk briskly after every main meal.

Still in search of an effective form of exercise that he could fit into a busy professional and family life, he interviewed Professor Jamie Timmins at Nottingham University whose research has concluded that government health advice, while legitimate, is less useful than it might be because it is simply not personalised enough – guidance is based upon averages, despite that the fact that there are huge variances between individuals.

A 4 year study of 1000 people training for 1 hour per week concluded:

–       That there was a huge variance in the effect exercise

–       20% get almost no effect, while

–       15% were ‘super-responders’ i.e. they receive an enormous training effect relative to the effort expended

The study was able to isolate 11 genes as the defining factor for the majority of the variance in individuals’ responses to exercise.

Testing, Testing, Testing

After having a DNA sample taken, Dr. Mosley was then assessed prior to undertaking a new fitness regime:

–       First for insulin sensitivity; they did this by giving him a sugary drink and then taking blood samples regularly over the next couple of hours to measure blood sugars and insulin levels.  He was only just within the healthy end of the spectrum.

–       Next, they tested him for aerobic fitness on a stationary bike by measuring his VO2 Max (the amount of oxygen your body is able to intake and use) – we still don’t really fully understand why this is such a powerful indicator of health and potential longevity, though there is no doubt that it is.

The new fitness programme Prof. Timmins and his team had Dr. Michael undertake is called the HIT protocol, which stands for High Intensity Training, and consists of cycling at maximum capacity for 20 seconds at a time, for 3 repetitions with short rests in between.  This should be done 3 times a week.

The HIT protocol appears to work by breaking down glycogen in the muscle from the glucose in the bloodstream and this is the key signal for the body’s metabolism to take up more.  They tested various forms of aerobic exercise, with cycling coming out at the top for involving the highest proportion of muscle groups at 70 – 80%, as against 20 – 30% for running.

This regime produces two really interesting results:

–       It takes around 2 weeks on average to have an effect on an individual’s insulin balance, and

–       Around 6 weeks to have an impact on aerobic fitness.

Want to be Fit?….Fidget

Another scientist interviewed as part of the programme was Dr. James Levine, who is an obesity expert who has been researching the best way to lose weight and improve fitness.  He recommends increasing what he terms NEAT, which stands for Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis i.e. the calories you burn in everyday living and sleeping.  Many of us spend 12 hours a day sitting down; his research used ‘fidget pants’ – exercise shorts with many sensors – that recorded a subject’s every movement during the day.  Michael and two other subjects had their activity levels measured using the shorts, and unsurprisingly the young waitress who took part recorded by far the highest levels of NEAT.  80% of the population doesn’t take any form of regular exercise, but Dr. Levine’s research indicates that exercise doesn’t have to be intensive or structured – simply moving, staying on your feet, and walking where possible can have an enormously beneficial effect.

–       Michael burned 500 extra calories a day by just being more generally active, at a level that didn’t make him sweat

–       The results of the research indicates you shouldn’t ever have a completely sedentary hour, as this is what compromises general fitness to the point of becoming a health risk.

It is undoubtedly true that a far larger number of martial artists now use additional training than was so when I began in the arts.  One of the perceived weaknesses of traditional training methods is that they are mostly anaerobic in nature, so some form of cardio-vascular exercise is seen as a necessary training adjunct amongst modern stylists. From my perspective, apart from the obvious health benefits of aerobic exercise, the better your cardio-vascular endurance, the longer and harder you will be able to train.

Can’t Do Anymore?  You Just Think You’re Tired

Another researcher, neurologist Dr. Emma Ross says that most people think when you get fatigued that it’s your muscles that quit, but indicators are that brain-chemistry is what tells the body to give up and rest.  She used a trans-cranial probe that created and directed a magnetic signal to the part of the brain controlling Dr. Michael’s leg muscles.  This demonstrated that it was the brain preventing the body activating the muscle fully (maximal contraction); this is the sub-conscious mind protecting you, as in the untrained, the margin anticipated as needed for safety is greater, but gradually the brain learns to wait longer before telling you to stop exercising.

Hit Again

Michael returned to Nottingham after 4 weeks to get the results of the HIT protocol he had been following:

–       After one month his blood glucose results had a 23% improvement in insulin sensitivity

–       As to aerobic improvement (VO2 Max), his aerobic capacity didn’t change, which they revealed at this point had been predicted by his earlier genetic tests unbeknownst to him; however, this doesn’t invalidate the protocol as he was now able to exercise for longer.  The genetic indicators simply told them that he was one of those members of the population who would never significantly increase his aerobic capacity beyond a certain point – in order words he would always be someone who had a low response to an aerobic training stimulus.

Stoke the Furnace, Service the Boiler

So, as the programme established, even gentle exercise helps with reducing fat in the bloodstream and therefore increases the metabolic rate – over time the metabolism is trained to operate more effectively.  If you have the boiler in your home serviced regularly, it will generally use less fuel and produce more heat.

I suspect that martial artists will remain divided for some years to come over whether it is better to use supplemental training to develop the attributes that best serve whichever art they are studying, or whether they should simply rely upon the practice of their art to mould their bodies into the ideal shape with the requisite characteristics.

Equally it is arguable as to whether most students of the arts have chosen the right art in which to thrive?  It may seem strange to choose a grappling intensive art, such as Brazilian Ju-jutsu (BJJ), if you are small and slight, but it might be the case that the challenge of making that non-intuitive choice appeals to the individual.  It might equally be true that this the only art available to the student locally, or that it appeals most to what the individual desires to become, or indeed that they are convinced that this is the most superior art to which they have access or could have access to?

In my martial family (Munen Muso Ryu) we train across a wide variety of arts – even those that are plainly not designed for the attribute set we possess – ultimately concentrating on those best suited to us as individuals, but retaining a broad skill-set so as to be able to function effectively in all circumstances and to have enough awareness of the strengths of others we do not share in order to counter them effectively.

The significance of the medical research highlighted in the Horizon programme is that it tells us/confirms for us certain essential truths about maintaining a good level of health and fitness for life, and about developing a greater level of fitness appropriate to our pursuit of the arts:

  • Most of us can greatly increase our cardio-vascular fitness and we can do so with only a small, but intense amount of effort a lá the HIT programme.
  • There are those – a minority of around 20% of the population – for whom this not true, but even here it is possible, with a small amount of regular exercise, to train the metabolism to efficiently process enough blood sugars to avoid a high level of insulin sensitivity and decrease the chances of developing diabetes.
  • There is an even smaller group (around 15%) who are ‘super-responders’ – that is, they get a particularly high return on their investment in aerobic fitness.
  • The majority, who will get a training effect, whether more or less significant, can do so with around 3 minutes (not including rests between reps) of very intense effort each week – after only 2 weeks there is a noticeable improvement in insulin balance, and after only 6 weeks in the cardio-vascular system!
  • It is not that extra inch of sub-cutaneous fat hanging over your belt that is the problem – however unsightly you worry that it is – but the fat surrounding liver, kidneys, pancreas and heart that is of significance.  Eating less saturated fat and generally being more active – walking rather taking the bus or the lift, getting up from your desk regularly to stretch your legs – can have a beneficial effect on your general health and fitness out of all proportion to the individual activity.
  • And while it is good to listen to your body in order to avoid injury while exercising, it is helpful – especially when just starting to exercise regularly or returning to it after a break – to apply a healthy scepticism the moment your mind tells you those 5 reps were quite enough, thankyou!  While the old ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy has been largely discredited over the last 2 – 3 decades, it seems there is some validity to it – if you’re not exercising to the point where you experience some genuine discomfort, you’re probably not doing it hard enough!

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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2 Responses to Fit to Fight – Exercise, Health and training to survive

  1. Stuart Aldridge says:

    Another very informative and well thought out article, thank you.
    I’m curious to discover what exercise(s) you undertake in your own day-to-day life as well as in your martial arts training – do you prefer to incorporate exercise into training/technique (perhaps by performing a technique faster or under tension) or do you supplement your practice with running/cycling and other non martial activities?

    • Hi, Stuart – thank you for the positive comments. As to my own workouts, they vary quite widely depending on how I’m feeling about my general levels of fitness and specific weaknesses at the time. I’m quite miserly with my time, as I don’t like to spend too much time away from technical practise, and as I’ve accumulated a lot of material over the years, I have to cycle through it on a regular basis to avoid losing large chunks. In the ’80s I discovered Heavy Hands, and they were ideal for providing resistance to my boxing techniques while shaow-boxing, and I used ankle weights to improve leg and core strength while kicking – though I would advise caution with these as full-power kicks in the air can do a fair amount of damage to connective tissue without weights, but using them for slow motion technical practise is good, as is wearing them while doing bag-work and for general footwork. When you take them off you feel like you’re flying.

      I used to do resistance training with machines, which I would still recommend, though it is difficult to get a full range of motion with them – I was briefly a Nautilus instructor in the ’80s, and I’m reading a book by Tim Ferris, ‘The Four Hour Body’ at the moment, which is informative. Tim was a sickenly young CEO of the Nautilus company so he has wonderful contacts in the exercise and sports science world. He recommends kettle-bell training and I’m trying to get into that – their design does allow for a greater range of motion than conventional dumb-bells and so I can imagine using them for a long time. Unfortunately, I can’t drag them out to Nigeria with me as they take way too much of my luggage allowance, though I may ‘bite the bullet’ next time and just buy the excess allowance up front.
      Martial artists have always used supplemental training though; it’s really not a modern phenomenon, though most people in the arts began to do more as a result of Bruce Lee’s well-publicised attribute training, often with marvellously specific equipment designed and build for him by Jimmy Lee. Tai Chi’s form for instance, is slow because in order to force the practitioner to take note of and control every tiny nuance of motion and to pre-condition the body for fast movement – tension inhibits speed. Conversely, Goju-ryu karate’s Sanchin kata, performed under extreme dynamic tension (isometric exercise) is done that way to train relaxation and speed – martial arts quite often use a diametrically opposed method to train some attribute at the opposite end of the spectrum. Old Okinawan forms, Goju-ryu included, used chishi and sashi stones (the kettle-bells of their day) for resistance training to develop particularly powerful punching and parrying techniques.
      If I’m training with a student who cannot relax when doing say, Hubud, then I might do pad or bag-work until they’re exhausted and THEN take them back to the sensitivity drill. I try not to be too wedded to a single approach, as I’ve always found that variety helps to not only keep the training fresh, but pays dividends in consistently producing a training effect. Like they say in NLP, “If you only do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

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