MMA: The Effects On Health

The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has exploded in popularity over the past several years. An increase in MMA television coverage has made the public more aware of this sport. MMA is relatively new, so there are few studies identifying the health effects of the sport. The studies that do exist identify both short-term benefits, and long-term consequences of participating in MMA.

Individuals who train for mixed martial arts experience a high intensity, total body cardiovascular workout. MMA trainers and others that have been around the sport have documented the health benefits of improved fitness. Those who participate MMA in general have lower rates of obesity and related chronic illnesses. The US government recommends a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but a recent British study found that just seven minutes of high intensity exercise daily provides the same benefits. MMA participants train in short and high intensity bursts, similar to what the British study recommends.

Injuries are rare in a MMA training environment; instructors often stress safety when sparring with a partner. The vast majority of injuries occur during an actual bout. Traditional fighting sports such as boxing and kickboxing only allow blows to the head and the torso; in MMA, participants may target the entire body. Elbow and knee blows occur in MMA, which can cause more damage than similar blows from the hands and feet.


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In MMA, there is great emphasis on submitting an opponent. Submission techniques include chokes and joint locks, both of which can have catastrophic health effects. A choke submission applied for too long can deprive the brain of blood, causing permanent brain damage. A joint lock submission applied for too long can cause permanent muscle tearing or ligament damage. An attentive referee tries to prevent a fighter from applying a submission for too long, but even the best referee can make mistakes.

While there are few long-term studies tracking the effects of MMA fighting, there are many long-term studies on the effects of boxing, which shares many similarities. A recent Swedish study found that up to twenty percent of professional boxers develop a chronic brain injury. Long round times and repeated blows to the head contribute to this issue. In the sport of mixed martial arts, fighters do not exclusively target their opponent’s head. By mixing in a variety of leg kicks and body blows, a MMA fighter may not receive the sheer volume of blows to head that a boxer receives. Despite taking fewer blows, a MMA fighter takes harder blows. Boxers wear large padded gloves while mixed martial artists wear thin, lightly padded gloves. These gloves deliver much more force than a boxing glove. It is currently unknown if fewer, harder blows to the head will have the same effect that has been documented in the sport of boxing.

Occasionally, the injuries sustained by a fighter are so significant that they pass away because of them. An estimated 700 or more boxers have died from boxing injuries in the United States alone. By comparison, only two MMA fighters have died during sanctioned bouts. In boxing, if a fighter falls to the ground after another fighter hits them, the referee gives them ten seconds to stand up and continue fighting. In MMA, a knocked down fighter who appears dazed, will result in the end of the match to prevent further injuries from occurring.

Health and Fighting experts will study the link between mixed martial arts and long-term health consequences for many years to come. The benefits to overall fitness are clear, and many of the most severe effects are avoidable by merely training for the sport and not actually fighting. Whether the risk is worth the potential reward is entirely up to the participant.

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