It’s a well-known fact that young people need exercise and plenty of it. Research shows that a consistent routine of regular exercise for forty-five minutes to an hour every day helps kids in a wide variety of ways. Generally speaking, parents are aware of the basic benefits of exercise, such as increased fitness, weight control, and aerobic conditioning.
Most parents also know that exercise and/or participation in group sports boosts confidence and self-esteem. What many parents may not know, however, is that a regular exercise routine can improve brain function and have a positive impact on overall academic achievement. While it’s clear that exercise helps young people lead a healthy, happy life, it can still be difficult for some parents to get their kids moving.
The truth is that some kids just don’t like to exercise. Organized sports simply aren’t for everyone. And once kids hit their teenage years, dragging them away from their devices might seem like an impossible task. For parents looking for a fun and productive way to get their teenagers moving, martial arts might be the answer.
Physical Benefits of Martial Arts
A regular practice of martial arts helps to improve a young person’s physical condition in the following areas:
- Strength. Most martial arts classes begin with light jogging and a basic calisthenics routine. They generally include push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and other basic strength-building exercises.
- Flexibility. Along with an opening calisthenics routine, martial arts classes incorporate stretching sequences that help prevent injury to muscles and maintain a healthy range of motion in joints.
- Control. Practicing the basics of martial arts like kicks and punches teaches a fundamental level of physical control. But it’s in the practice of forms where the real action happens. Forms are set patterns of movement that include punches, kicks, lunges, jumps, twists and spins. Learning a form is like learning a dance. Forms teach a sophisticated physical precision and focus absent in many sports.
- Awareness. Awareness in martial arts results from the cumulative practice of punching, kicking, basic calisthenics exercises, and interaction with other martial arts students during activities like punching focus pads or sparring. As a student progresses, they slowly begin to know their bodies, what they can do, and what’s good and bad for them.
- Coordination. In addition to precise control, the practice of forms in martial arts teaches children how to move their bodies in efficient and harmonious ways. The practice of forms in martial arts can take a young person whose self-talk might be “I’m so uncoordinated” and change it to “Look at this cool thing I can do!”
Psychological, Social, and Emotional Benefits of Martial Arts
A regular practice of martial arts can help a young person develop the following personal characteristics:
- Confidence: Children and teenagers who participate in martial arts classes go through a process of learning and applying techniques. With each small learning success, self-esteem grows. Also, Many martial arts involve a ranking system. To move through the ranks, students have to learn new material and pass tests. As a child moves progresses, their self-esteem grows.
- Respect: Almost every martial arts class begins with two formal bows. One to the teacher of the class, and one to a picture of the founder of that particular style of martial art. In addition, before and after working with one another on one-on-one exercises, students bow to one another or shake hands to show respect. Also, in a martial arts studio, students are expected to listen to and follow directions without question. If they don’t, they’re typically asked to leave the school and not return.
- Discipline: The only way to succeed in martial arts is by working hard over an extended period of time. Though the skills may come more readily for some than for others, progressing in martial arts is never easy. When a student sees a move they want to learn, they have to practice it over and over before they get it right. While many martial arts instructors have plenty of experience working with children and know how to create a positive atmosphere in their school, they’re notoriously stingy with compliments. When a student practices diligently and finally executes a move that elicits praise from the teacher, they’ve learned an important lesson: hard work pays off.
Choosing the Right Martial Arts School
A wide variety of martial arts styles are available for kids.
Karate, from Japan, emphasizes kicks, punches and forms. Tae Kwon Do, from Korea, emphasizes kicking above everything else. It also includes healthy doses of punching and some form work. Kung Fu, from China, incorporates punching and kicking in equal amounts. It places a greater emphasis on precision form work than most other martial arts. Judo, from Japan, is similar to wrestling, and emphasizes throws and pins. Jiu-jitsu, originally from Japan but refined in Brazil, is similar to Judo. Jiu-jitsu emphasizes joint locks, takedowns, and chokes. Muay Thai, from Thailand, is a straightforward martial art that uses only practical kicks and punches, with almost no work on forms.
Classes in all these martial styles can be found in most major cities in the U.S., as well as most of the smaller ones. For parents trying to decide which one is right for their child or teen, the best thing to do is to have a conversation to gauge his or her interest, then find a school nearby and go check it out. It’s okay to try one or two schools before settling on one, and it’s crucial to follow parent’s intuition. If a school has a good feel to it and the instructor is friendly and personable, then there’s a good chance it’s worth the time and money. One last thing: if you see kids having fun and smiling parents sitting watching their happy kids, that should seal the deal.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.