Updated 16 August 2019

How sporting activities like martial arts and boxing can help kids with ADHD

Exercise has been shown to be a good strategy to help kids and teenagers manage ADHD – and there are particular activities that can help improve focus and confidence.

Exercise has both physical and mental benefits, and has an added benefit for those with ADHD. A previous Health24 article notes that in children with ADHD, regular exercise significantly reduces the severity of ADHD symptoms and provides an enhancement of cognitive performance and brain function.

The study’s head researcher, professor Charles Hillman of the University of Illinois, said that physical activity is a good investment for all children, especially for kids who are hyperactive.

The ADHD brain has low levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters impact things like motivation and the ability to think clearly. With physical activity, however, there is better brain function and focus as neurotransmitter levels are elevated. 

Another 2018 pilot study that examined the effects of physical exercise on attention while participants were engaged in a continuous task also found that attention was enhanced by arousal through exercise.  

Research suggests that a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-to-high intensity cardio produces the right level of neurotransmitters as well as the special protein, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). All kinds of exercise, however, benefits ADHD brains, and especially sporting activities like martial arts teach helpful, practical skills. 

Boxing and martial arts benefits the ADHD brain

In a BBC article, a group of teenagers with ADHD explain how their experience with boxing helps them channel their excess energy. Levi, a 14-year-old boy, said that the diagnosis and medication are helpful, but “it’s the boxing that really helps as I’m always so full of energy and struggle to concentrate”.

Since ADHD is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to control impulsive behaviours and pay attention to things, martial arts and boxing centre heavily on mental discipline and use repetitive motions to teach techniques and emphasise the connection between one’s body and mind, explains Evolve Daily.

Apart from improving one’s mental health, it teaches focus, patience and perseverance that can carry over into one’s personal and professional life. This is why the activity can be beneficial for those with ADHD. Taunton, a town in England, has a boxing club for kids with ADHD. The idea came from Ray Oliveira Jr. (27) who was also diagnosed with ADHD at the age of four. He developed an interest in pugilism (boxing) as an outlet for his energy and frustration. 

Developing an exercise programme that fits the ADHD lifestyle requires motivation and consistency. This may be challenging at first, but incorporating a variety of activities can help the process along. 

Image: iStock


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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