Children with ADHD tend to have a harder time getting through day-to-day life than their non-ADHD peers. Those with the condition don’t have an attention deficit, per se. Rather, they have difficulty directing their focus to the appropriate tasks. Boys in particular often exhibit hyperactivity due to their constant need to fidget and move their bodies – which, contrary to popular belief, is actually a tactic that helps them focus.

What Martial Arts Can Do

Neuroscientists, psychologists, and parents alike have discovered that exercise can moderate the effects of ADHD. Exercise promotes the release of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, both of which are neurotransmitters that help regulate the attention system. With regular exercise, the brain’s base levels of these neurotransmitters will rise – ultimately helping children with ADHD focus better. Further research has shown an exercise-driven increase in activity in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for executive function.

While team sports and activities like running can help, more and more parents – as well as scientists – are discovering the benefits of martial arts for these children. Martial arts can help kids learn to self-regulate, concentrate, and socialize in new ways that would otherwise be unavailable to them. This is because being an active participant in the martial arts requires kids to pay close attention and learn movement patterns, which they are then asked to repeat.

However, according to experts, more and more studies are showing that one of the most important lessons kids with ADHD learn from martial arts is respect. Learning the art of a tradition like karate or taekwondo requires children to stand still and wait for the next instruction. Prior to performing a movement, the child bows to his or her instructor and then concentrates on executing the move as well as possible.

What This Means for Kids

The benefits of martial arts carry over into the rest of kids’ lives – which is particularly true for those who have ADHD. Because the martial arts train children to properly regulate their behavior and pay attention, children with ADHD learn to sit still and concentrate, even when presented with topics they don’t necessarily find interesting. If anything, the martial arts teach kids that they will be rewarded for paying attention, whether with new knowledge, a new skill, or by receiving the respect of their peers and elders.

The martial arts also teach kids that practice can bring about great rewards. Most martial arts systems – whether judo, karate, taekwondo, or other variety – show participants’ progress by awarding them with colored belts whenever they can demonstrate the proper skills needed to move forward. Kids with ADHD also benefit from this system, which teaches them to set and achieve realistic goals. Above all else, practicing a martial art provides much-needed structure and consistency, which kids with ADHD may not otherwise have in their lives. By offering structure in controlled environments, children can slowly but effectively learn to self-regulate.

Which Martial Art to Choose

Different kids have different needs, and so no singular “solution” is going to be a catchall. With that said, some martial arts are better suited for children with ADHD. Karate is a great option, but because it’s highly active, kids will need to be very careful not to overexert themselves – a task that can often fall on the parent to ensure.

On the other hand, taekwondo uses the highly active kicking and punching movements associated with karate, combining the energizing routines with focused breathing and meditation. Meditation has been proven to benefit both kids and adults with trouble focusing, and more recent studies are showing that mindful meditation – a.k.a. “cognitive control” – has some of the most positive, long-lasting effects thus far seen on people who have ADHD.