I’ve never been very sporty. I’ve slogged through gym sessions and taken classes but always with a sense of duty more than love. All that changed a year and a half ago when I saw a poster advertising for a class in Longsword training. Yes, you read that right! This unusual new martial art not only tones your body, it can also sharpen your mind!
Want to sharpen your mind? Ask science!
Little did I know that I would be whole-heartedly diving down the rabbit hole that is Historical European Martial Arts or HEMA for short. It encompasses armed and unarmed martial arts with weapons from swords to sticks but at the core of HEMA you usually will find the Longsword as it has some very good manuscripts which date from the Middle Ages.
HEMA is also known as Historical Fencing because it attempts to rediscover the traditional martial fencing arts from manuscripts and treatises that have lain all but forgotten for centuries. The Sports Fencing that we see on the Olympics developed from the traditional styles but has taken a route from the martial to the sport. The swords used are based on authentic swords from the past, but don’t worry, they’re not sharp!
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For most, HEMA is about getting a fantastic workout and having a lot of fun, but there are also many HEMA enthusiasts who debate interpretations and argue about whether moves are true to the manuscripts. For some, HEMA is Fencing with the Nerd Dial turned to eleven. And I love it.
So what? Exercise is good for the brain, does it matter which exercise you partake in, nerd boy?
The Washington Post published an excellent article about how Sport Fencing was beneficial for your brain, especially as it ages (yay!). The article cited a study led by Francesco Di Russo of the Foro Italico University of Rome who found that sports that require fast decision-making can help improve cognition for all ages and help protect the aging brain from decline. Luckily for me, what applies to Sport Fencing also applies to HEMA.
Normally we slow down a bit as we age. Our minds do not need to make fast decisions as often. The common adage “use it or lose it” very much applies to the brain. If we slow down then our brains also slow down and our cognition can decline. But by engaging in sports that require fast thinking we can strengthen these areas of the brain that deal with attention and the processing of information. So everyone benefits from open motor skills sports Of course, those of us that are advancing in years have the most to lose by slowing down!
The study stated that sports that need Open Skills, i.e. that “requires fast decisions and … places high demands on visual attention and flexibility”, help improve the brain’s cognitive abilities and help protect these cognitive abilities from the aging process. Furthermore, a study in Taiwan found that open skills sports help the brain work more efficiently.
The exercise benefits our brains too. In 2013 a study by the University of Texas found that people over the age of fifty who exercise improve their memory and their overall brain health. And they also get fit.
“This research shows the tremendous benefit of aerobic exercise on a person’s memory and demonstrates that aerobic exercise can reduce both the biological and cognitive consequences of aging.” – Sandra Bond Chapman, University Of Texas
Of course, open skills sports are not confined to those that wield swords, staffs, sticks etc. Other examples include football (all types), hockey, hurling, baseball, cricket and most martial arts.
But if you are on the lookout for a new obsession fun workout that’s good for your brain, then check the HEMA Alliance or Google for a HEMA club near you. If not then get out and play your favourite other Open Skills sport, your brain will thank you for it!