Can Martial Arts Help Me Lose Weight and Get Into Shape?

Many people join gyms, classes, and martial arts programs, or they buy exercise equipment or swimming pool passes, to lose weight and get into shape, particularly as part of a new year’s resolution.

Martial arts can certainly help you achieve those laudable objectives, but to do so, you may first need to change your mindset, method, or focus. In fact, the best way to lose weight or get into shape is to set those resolutions aside and pursue them indirectly. We’ll explain why below. 

(Scientists know what doesn’t cause obesity, but not exactly what does. Diet is, of course, an important component. Common sense dictates that even people who need to lose significant weight must eat enough of the right foods to fuel their daily activities and exercise regimens, and less of the food that sabotages their health. We must, however, leave that part of the equation to the physicians, nutritionists, and dietitians qualified to address it.)

Weight loss and improved physical fitness require trodding some unpleasant paths, and the journey may take longer than most people realize. A lack of realistic expectations for your training can breed frustration and cause people to give up.

Moreover, getting into shape is such a subjective goal that nobody can really achieve it. This, again, breeds frustration. People, then, may impose an objective standard against which to measure their progress—say, to lose five pounds in five weeks.

This presents several problems. 

  • You may have chosen the wrong weight-loss goal.
  • You may have set an unrealistic deadline for achieving it.
  • You might lack an effective plan to achieve it.
  • You may not need to lose weight, though you may need to reduce body fat.
  • You may not understand the complicated, imperfect relationship between weight and physical fitness.
  • Should you achieve your goal, you may decide to halt the activities that brought you there, and find your weight again cycling upward and your physical condition declining.

Joe Hyams, in his classic book Zen in the Martial Arts, addresses this quandary in several places, primarily in the chapter “Process Not Product.” We remand you to Hyams’s essay for the details, but a maxim elsewhere in Zen in the Martial Arts neatly summarizes it: “When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way.”

Thus, rather than setting weight loss or physical fitness goals, whether concrete or ephemeral, you may achieve them much easier by finding physical activities you enjoy.

You may need to explore many options before you find your Way. You may discover that you love biking, hiking, volleyball, basketball, swimming, or (we certainly hope!) martial arts. You may find an appealing combination of activities.

Practice or, better yet, play, and regularly, but not beyond the point where you enjoy your activity or your body rebels. Take pleasure in doing what you love.

With time and quality instruction, you will discover that your proficiency improves.

Think then about adding exercises to improve the speed, strength, endurance, and flexibility needed for the activities you love.

Devoid of this context, weightlifting, running, and calisthenics may turn into profoundly unpleasant drudgery for some people. When you see the value they bring to activities you enjoy, however, you give those exercises meaning. If burpees improve your volleyball or basketball play or increase the speed and power of your punches and kicks in karate, seeing those benefits may remove a psychological barrier to making them part of your life. Even if you don’t grow to enjoy them, you may endure them easier.

Judge yourself by what you can do, not by what you can’t. Maybe you cannot bench press your own weight, do 50 situps, or run a six-minute mile. Bench press what you can, do as many situps as you can, run as far or as fast as you can. Rest a day or two, then do it again. It will slowly get easier, you will find you can do more, and your physical condition will improve.

Some martial arts, like karate, focus more on physical fitness than others. Even karate, however, may not cause you to build muscle or shed weight alone. That’s not karate’s purpose, though you may find it produces those side benefits. Should you come to enjoy martial arts, however, you may find they motivate you to eat healthier and augment your training with other exercises that build muscle and burn fat as they make you a better martial artist. Even if you don’t lose weight, your body may firm up. (You don’t need to wait until your karate classes start before you begin that process, either.)

Regardless, this leads to another principle.

Judge your progress by ability, not appearance.

Bodybuilders, for example, may develop beautiful physiques. No matter how good they look, how low their body fat percentage, or how much weight they can push around, they may still make lousy fighters, volleyball players, or anything else if their training built slow, stiff, uncoordinated muscles.

Make function (improving your ability to do what you love) not form (how you look), your purpose. As you fulfill the former objective, the latter may take care of itself.

When you enjoy your Way, you will find that training passes much easier. In time, you may reach your destination. After that, you may find yourself surpassing what you ever believed possible.