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Fighting for Mental Health

How Boxing, Martial Arts, (and Other Sports) Keep Us Sane

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

Every Tuesday and Thursday I hit Luis. I hit him hard, and I hit him repeatedly. No, I do not need an anger management program. Luis is my trainer and he’s a professional boxer. I don’t actually hit Luis. He wears punching mitts, which I hit in various patterns known as “combinations”. It’s definitely not your ordinary, boring workout at the gym. It’s exciting, and boxing is one of the most effective cardiovascular and strength training workouts available. And it’s a highly effective coping skill for dealing with stress and building self-esteem.

The Mind-Body Connection

There are several significant, documented benefits of boxing and other martial arts. Similar benefits result from yoga and other sports. I’ve tried almost all of them, but boxing is the best overall full-body workout I’ve ever experienced. Research studies prove that intense, sustained exercise results in significant improvements in physical and mental health and well-being, including improved stress management and self-esteem. We’ve known for years that a healthy mind and a healthy body are closely linked. The physical health benefits of boxing include:

  • Cardiovascular endurance – Promotes efficient heart, blood vessel and lung functions, for improved metabolism, muscular endurance, strength and flexibility. Also leads to better sleep, stronger heart and lungs, and a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers. For many years, I’ve been a runner, biker, swimmer, and a gym rat with regular use of elliptical and stair climber machines. Boxing is the best cardio workout I’ve ever experienced.
  • Weight loss and maintenance – Boxing burns calories more efficiently than most sports with the possible exception of running, swimming and biking. Some medical research indicates greater health benefits with shorter bursts of very intense cardio performance – a regular aspect of boxing (I do several intense 3 minute rounds with Luis). And boxing is a great motivation for better diet and nutritional habits.
  • Improved coordination and balance – Boxing is a full body workout that also emphasizes what I call the stance and dance. We focus on standing in a specific position and dancing around the room both offensively and defensively. The training exercises I perform to practice these moves, and the actual boxing itself is excellent training for balance, posture and coordination.

Four Major Mental Health Benefits

Boxing has significantly enhanced my mental health and sense of well-being. Most forms of intense exercise can claim similar results. These mental health benefits include reduced levels of anxiety and depression, a positive mind-set, improved stress management, and personal empowerment. For example, Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D., a leading researcher and clinician in the field of trauma recovery (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and trauma from childhood abandonment and abuse) recommends boxing, martial arts, and yoga for improving confidence and self-esteem.

I’ve grouped together four primary mental health benefits and coping skills that result from boxing and similar sports:

  1. A Positive Mind-Set – My first boxing coach told me to relax my face. It seems that I clenched my teeth and had a pained expression – I was anxious and tense. Over time I learned to let go of self-judgment and to keep my focus on stance, technique, and to be fully absorbed in the interaction with my trainer. This is the essence of mindfulness – moment-to-moment awareness without judgment. It’s almost ironic that there is a sense of inner peace in those combative moments when I’m hitting someone! A positive mind-set is achieved with a pure form of focus on the activity at hand. It starts with determination and intention to perform at the highest level possible while enjoying the process.
  2. Personal Empowerment – Boxing builds confidence and improves self-esteem. Human beings are hard-wired for anger and aggression. These are survival mechanisms, and they can be re-wired into positive coping skills. The strength and power that we exercise in boxing come from within. I’ve found that core training includes both mental as well as physical conditioning. Athletic, muscular power is driven and stabilized by core muscles (abdominal, oblique, lats, etc.). Personal empowerment is driven by core personal beliefs – a belief and confidence in yourself and your ability to strive and succeed.
  3. Prevention and Recovery from Mental and Emotional Distress – Studies show that intense physical exercise is associated with reduced levels of anxiety and depression, and improved self-esteem. Boxing is a highly effective form of stress management and anger management. Boxing and other martial arts are invaluable for trauma recovery and PTSD.
  4. Social and Relational Benefits – Relationships are a basic need – just as necessary as food and water. Boxing is very intimate– another ironic aspect of this sport. I’ve developed close relationships with my trainers, and other athletes at my gym. Luis trains my wife and me together on Tuesdays, and I’ve boxed in training groups as well. These have been fun and rewarding social opportunities – but it goes deeper than that. Boxing moves and strategies are fundamentally relational. It’s a great metaphor for several important relationship skills. For example, even in our most intimate relationships we need healthy boundaries: The ability to say no or stop when we feel disrespected or violated. In boxing we stay engaged and we dance together – while keeping our guard up. And the boxing dance – similar to any relationship dance – is more effective and rewarding with proper timing and pacing. When I anxiously pressure my boxing dance, it wears me out and leaves me vulnerable. The same thing happens in intimate relationships when difficult conversations are poorly timed, or when one partner pressures the other. Mindfulness, timing and pacing are highly effective in boxing and in other relationships.

For additional information about stress management, coping skills, and relationship distress, please contact us today. Our counselors and therapists also specialize in trauma recovery, anger management, mindfulness & mind-body methods.

Luis “Cuba” Arias is a professional middleweight boxer who resides in South Florida. He was National U.S. Champion in 2008 and 2010. He has a record of 18 wins, 9 by knock-out, 1 loss and 1 no contest. His next fight is scheduled for November 17, 2018 in Atlantic City, NJ, and will be televised nationally. Luis trains at IHP (Institute for Human Performance) in Boca Raton, Florida. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity and the honor to train with Luis at IHP. I’m also grateful to Juan Carlos Santana, founder of IHP and international fitness consultant – he has been referred to as “the country’s leading practitioner of functional fitness.” I’ve also had the great pleasure of training with Rio Santana at IHP, who specializes in basketball, football, and combat related athletes. Rio taught me the basics of boxing, and he’s a gifted personal trainer. I will always value their professionalism and their friendship.