As a parent, you want your child to grow up to be a healthy, strong, and independent person; participation in sports like martial arts is one way to promote physical, social, and emotional growth. You want them to pursue their interests, but, at the same time, you may have some trepidation about the lasting effects of physical activity on their developing bodies.
Practicing martial arts like karate or taekwondo has not been shown to stunt growth in children or teenagers. In fact, studies indicate that the opposite is true: weight-bearing exercise in childhood has positive effects on bones, which may last into adulthood even if the activity is discontinued.
Is your child begging to take karate or taekwondo, but you’re worried that the activity may hinder their growth? In this article, we’ll address a few misconceptions and truths around this idea to put your mind at ease.
The Physicality of Martial Arts
You’ve probably seen the 1984 movie The Karate Kid starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, and, more recently, the Netflix series Cobra Kai. Both storylines revolve around timid, unpopular kids being bullied before becoming accomplished “karate kids” who stand up for themselves and others.
While these plotlines make an extreme case for learning a martial art, there is an element of truth in the idea that practicing one of these arts can give your child the confidence and skills they need to navigate their childhood years successfully. These styles can also promote bone density and growth.
Have no doubt—the martial arts are physically (and mentally) demanding. You know that just from watching Daniel LaRusso wax on and wax off in the ring against his archenemy Johnny Lawrence.
However, just because it can be physically demanding doesn’t mean you should dismiss karate and its fellow arts as “too tough” for your kid.
Stunting or delaying growth doesn’t occur because of a strenuous workout. There are other more serious causes to curbing a child’s development that come early in a child’s life. These strenuous workouts actually help skeletal systems.
One way to get a great strenuous workout at home for both parents and kids is by getting a quality heavy bag. The ones I have used for kids and mom’s for decades is the Century Wavemaster series that requires not hanging and can be moved out of the way with ease. Check out pricing here on Amazon.
Participating in the right martial art may actually be just what your child and their body need. Although this article is not intended to help you choose the right martial art for your child, it may help to know the different martial art styles and their physical expectations:
|Martial Art||Physical Aspects|
|Karate||Kicking and punching; quick, explosive joint movements|
|Taekwondo||Kicking and punching; breathing and meditation|
|Judo||Balance and leverage; throwing opponents to the ground|
|Jujitsu||Self-defense; using an opponent’s weight against him|
|Aikido||Like jujitsu but gentler and noncompetitive|
|Kung Fu||Similar to karate; more circular and fluid movement|
|Tai Chi||Moves that promote weight-bearing, balance, strength|
There is no evidence that any of these styles stunt a child’s growth. On the contrary, with safe practice they can actually be a great help.
If you’d like to learn even more about the many different styles of martial arts, here’s an article I’ve previously written about the variety you might want to read.
Physical Benefits of a Martial Art That Prevent Growth Stunting
Scientific studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that learning a martial art will positively affect children physically, socially, and emotionally.
I’ve written extensively about the exercise benefits of martial arts, which you can read, here. Some research suggests that children involved in karate, for example, perform better in school, have increased attention spans and cognitive function, and better behavior.
There is also another consideration when addressing the question of a child’s growth being stunted. There is not only no proof of detrimental effects, but there is actually proof of exactly the opposite.
When it comes to physical benefits, specifically, studies show that children and youth involved in a sport such as karate or taekwondo exhibit a higher overall physical fitness level than their sedentary peers. Specifically, they develop these outcomes that fight against the hindering of bone development:
- Stronger bone density
- More muscle strength
- Steadier balance
- Enhanced joint flexibility
- Improved body awareness
- Improved hand-eye-foot coordination
- Greater concentration and focus
- Faster reaction time
- Increased stamina
How Will Martial Arts Benefit My Kid’s Growth?
As suggested above, martial arts help promote healthy bone growth in children, and several studies have supported this:
- According to an article in Pediatric Exercise Science (2017), “even from the earliest age, bone has the potential to respond to exercise-related stimuli.” Weight-bearing exercise, like the types of physical activity done in martial arts, works to strengthen bones and increase bone mass and density regardless of how old you are.
- Evidence has shown that exercise increases the production of growth hormone (HGH), indicating that participation in an active sport has a definite positive effect on your child’s physical growth.
- Little research has been done on the effects of different martial arts on physical growth. However, a study of taekwondo’s growth effects found a positive correlation between regular training and a child’s growth index during their growth period.
Does the Type of Martial Art Make a Difference?
You may be wondering if it matters which martial art your child does when it comes to growth effects. Well, vigorous, aerobic activity is a key component of all martial arts, so the resulting increase in HGH production and bone growth will benefit your child no matter which martial art they participate in.
Besides the immediate benefits in physical fitness, regular training in a martial art can impact their physical health later in life, too.
In fact, adults who participated in weight-bearing sports activities in their younger years tend to have higher bone mass and more resistance to age-related bone issues such as osteoporosis. Also, far from stunting growth, martial arts training is an effective deterrent to bone density loss that often gives way to the hunched stoop of old age.
Physical Risks of Kids Learning Martial Arts
In reality, there is almost no physical downside to letting your child learn a martial art. However, there are some cases in which your kid may be at risk of physical harm:
- Some experts have sounded the alarm about children participating in highly repetitive sports (pitching in baseball, for example) at an early age. The martial arts are no exception if overuse and overtraining replace the recommended training regimen.
- Additionally, as with any youth sport, injuries can occur. Expect occasional bumps, bruises, and sprains due to the physical nature of the sport. Typically these are minor and cause no lasting harm. Rare, but possible, are more serious head and neck injuries that may have long-term ill effects.
- Training in Judo or MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), which emphasizes grappling and throwing opponents to the mat in submission, can lead to concussions and chokeholds. While the effects of these serious injuries may have direct implications on physical growth, they can also impact neurological health into adulthood.
- Note: Parents should be aware that some styles of grappling teach and allow choke holds, arm locks, and leg locks. This is inappropriate for many age groups.
- Bones finally fuse together completely about the age of 18. Because of this, an injury to one of the growth plates in a child or teen can cause damage to the growth plate and negatively impact long-term bone growth.
- Growth plate injuries have led to one of the myths about teens and exercise, which says that strength training can stunt growth. In actuality, it’s not the training that causes the growth problem; it’s the injury to the growth plate.
Although these are all valid risks associated with martial arts, as long as your child learns and practices proper technique and form, and wears protective gear when appropriate, they will be less likely to sustain an injury.
What Does Stunt a Child’s Growth?
Stunted growth in children typically occurs during the first 1000 days of life; that is, from birth to the age of 2. Developmentally delayed growth can lead to a lifetime of health issues that are difficult to overcome.
The causes of stunted growth are varied but can be attributed to one of these factors:
- Poor nutrition and sanitation
- Chronic illness
- Congenital and genetic conditions
Since the onset of slow growth happens very early in life, it is safe to say that exercise of any kind does not contribute to a child’s shorter stature or delayed development.
Outside of a significant injury, participating in martial arts training, or any other sport, for that matter, does not adversely impact your kid’s physical growth in any way. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
Frequent and vigorous exercise, with an emphasis on bearing weight, developing balance, and improving flexibility, is one of the most effective activities your child can do to benefit themselves now and into adulthood. Furthermore, learning a martial art promotes healthy bone growth and provides a hedge of protection against bone diseases later in life.