The Mental Health Benefits of Kung Fu (Especially for Those of Us with ADHD)
First thing’s first: I’m going to start by explaining what ADHD is, but if you don’t have it, don’t worry—this article still applies to you. Just stick with me!
Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is estimated to effect between 2-18% of the general population (1), with potentially much larger numbers going undiagnosed. I, myself, was not diagnosed until I was 33, though I was often told, and was very aware that I “thought differently from other people”. The title ADHD is extremely unbecoming, and very misleading. Most of us who have it understand intuitively that it is not a “disorder”, we are simply neurodivergent—meaning, we process things differently from others. This can offer unique advantages, as well as disadvantages.
For example, adults with ADHD are 300 percent more likely to start their own businesses (2)! And yes…many of them are successful: JetBlue and Kinkos are just two examples. Linda Roggli, a Professional Certified Coach who writes for ADDitude, describes how ADHD can provide a strategic advantage, enhancing qualities important to a successful business, such as risk-taking, impulsivity, sensation seeking, hyperfocus, and curiosity. In addition to these traits, ADHDers are also often credited for thinking “outside the box”, superior problem-solving, and increased resilience, tenacity, and passion.
And the “Attention Deficit” part of the acronym? Also wrong. We do not suffer from an “attention deficit”, we suffer from an attention regulation problem. Meaning, we can’t focus on things we don’t want to focus on. This is not a choice. We cannot—we don’t get dopamine rewards for completing things we consider mundane tasks, whereas neurotypical people do. These dopamine rewards are what provide motivation. No motivation, no task completion. Not a choice, not really.
However, if we are interested in a task, we have the superhuman ability to “hyperfocus”, where you may not be able to tear us away from whatever we’re working on for hours on end. We may even lash out at you if you try! So, this one can be a blessing and a curse. (Side note, if you live with an ADHDer, try a simple touch on the shoulder to bring us back to reality, and don’t ever start talking before you have our full attention—we won’t remember anything you said, even if we do respond).
There are, however, a fair amount of challenges that come with ADHD as well. We are neurodiverse people living in a neurotypical world. Therefore, we are forced to live up to neurotypical standards (which we’re really bad at) or risk being ostracized. There are two major deficits that a person with ADHD experiences: inattention (specifically to things we’re not interested in) and/or hyperactivity (the feeling that we constantly need to be doing something).
Fun side note—there used to be a designation for ADD versus ADHD, but that has since been eliminated. The two “disorders” were combined under the blanket term ADHD, with three distinctions—inattentive, hyperactive, or combined type. (I, myself, happen to be a combined type, that leans toward the inattentive part of the spectrum). This means that everyone with ADHD has a different experience with some overlapping trends.
The inattentive part of this “disorder” is particularly troublesome to us all. We may have great memories, but we have trouble focusing long enough to draw out the information we need, and (also due to our trouble with focus) have difficulty encoding it into our memory in the first place. As you might imagine, it also impairs our executive function, which includes our ability to plan or resist impulsive behavior, and can even limit our self-expression. We can’t clearly explain to you, well…really much of anything on the fly, because that requires a great deal of focus. Interestingly, however, our planning abilities and rationality is not impaired when we have time to ruminate on a task. In fact, we may even come up with better solutions than the average bear, which is where that superiority in “outside the box” thinking comes in.
Now for the part that applies to everyone. Martial arts can help improve ADHD symptoms! If you don’t have ADHD, how does this effect you? Because it can enhance the same abilities ADHDers struggle with in neurotypical people as well!
In a review of 7 studies on the subject, Riya Agrawal and Dr. Pradeep Borkar found that training in martial arts (which included Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Mixed Martial Arts, and Kendo) improved cognitive function, psychological health, selective attention span, and alertness in both regular adults and adults with ADHD. Interestingly enough, one study revealed that:
Kung-fu training increases focus capacity more [than other disciplines]…which can be explained by the fact that kung-fu training needs more focus [than the others]. (3)
Another eight studies that were evaluated by Riya Agrawal and Dr. Borkar determined a significant positive relationship between martial arts (this time including MMA, Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, and Kendo) and self-confidence. This included reducing fear of victimization and rape in women, general confidence of participants with various diseases across a wide population, as well as self-confidence in healthy adolescents. Additionally, these studies found that martial arts assisted athletes in “maintaining self-control in the face of tension, anxiety, and irritability” (3) (otherwise known as reducing impulsivity).
This last part about confidence is important to all of us, but especially important to those of us with ADHD. ADHD typically comes with several comorbidities, such as depression and anxiety. This is due, in part, to the higher risk of social isolation and rejection we experience thanks to low attentional and executive skills (1), which sometimes encourages people to label those with ADHD as “lazy”, “stupid”, or “self-absorbed”.
Not only can martial arts enhance cognition, memory, selective attention, and motor reaction time (1), but it also provides a sense of community and belonging. It is hard not to come to enjoy the company of, and naturally build an interest in, those we train with. It may seem strange, but the deepest bonds I’ve ever developed are with other students I’ve fought in Kung Fu. This shared experience has built even greater ties (at times) than those I have formed with military members I lived and served with in the Navy.
There is something magical about Kung Fu that goes beyond the sum of its composite parts. It infiltrates your life and imbues it with magic that both seizes your attention and grounds you in reality. At some point, it departs the studio you train in and follows you into the world. It starts to serve as a focal point for everything else, until one day you realize the truth of what Jackie Chan told a young Jayden Smith back in 2010: “Everything is Kung Fu”.
1. Kadri A, Slimani M, Bragazzi NL, Tod D, Azaiez F. Effect of Taekwondo Practice on Cognitive Function in Adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(2):204-215.
2. Rogglie, L. “Entrepreneurship and ADHD: Fast Brain, Fast Company?” ADDitude, 28 Oct 2021.
3. Agrawal R, Borkar P. Influence of Martial Arts on Self efficacy and Attention Time Span in Adults: Systematic Review. Internationl Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health. 2021;8(3):151-157