Taekwondo: martial art that increases cognitive performance
There is a well-established correlation between increased cognitive performance and martial arts (Douris, 2015; Johnstone, 2018; Origua Rios, 2018). Research has shown in particular how the practice of taekwondo is able to optimize some cognitive functions and increase neuroplasticity, not only in young and adult subjects, but also among individuals over 70 years of age.
Advertising message Taekwondo is a martial art born in Korea. Spread from the country of origin since 1972, it has become an Olympic discipline since the 2000 Sydney Games. It currently involves 80 million athletes in around 200 countries around the world.
The motivation that drives the research to investigate the relationship between cognitive skills and the practice of taekwondo seems justified by the particular characteristics of this sport. In general, the exercise of this sport involves the athlete in a behavior that emphasizes control, respect, integrity, perseverance, and various cognitive functions such as sustained attention, speed of processing, planning and the problem. solving. The cognitive complexity in the practice of taekwondo is exemplified by the “poomse” (forms) which are a series of choreographic movements implemented with technical precision in a given order, in a process of learning with increasing complexity that involves the subject for many years.
Research that looked at younger athletes showed a significant increase in plasma values of neurotrophic factors most correlated with brain plasticity processes. In particular, a series of Korean studies (Cho et al., 20171; Cho et al., 20172; Kim, 2015) has verified that a taekwondo training of only 16 weeks, with subjects between 10 and 12 years of age, is able to produce a significant increase in the plasma level of BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor-1) and VEGF (Vascular endothelial growth factor). BDNF is a neurotrophin which contributes to neuronal survival and differentiation. IGF-1, as a mediator of the action of somatotropin, promotes the somatic development and growth of the organism. VEGF is an important index of angiogenesis. The same research measured the cognitive functions of young athletes, through the developmental version of the Stroop Test (Golden et al., 2003), noting a significant increase in performance compared to the measurements in the control group. The Stroop test, which provides a measure of inhibitory ability, sustained and divided attention, perceptual and processing speed, is generally a test used in the cognitive assessment of athletes practicing martial arts.
Research by the University of California (Lakes et al., 2013) involved 600 students aged 12 to 14 years and found, in the taekwondo training group compared to the control group, an increase in working memory performance, control inhibitory and cognitive flexibility using the Hearts & Flowers Task (Davidson, 2006). The same research could also highlight that the students participating in the training group have extended the acquired skills of behavioral and attentional control also to the school and daily context. According to this evidence, another study (Roh et al., 2018) has shown how the practice of taekwondo is able to optimize socialization skills at a young age.
Recent research (Kadri et al., 2019) has highlighted how the practice of this sport contributes to the increase in sustained attention in young people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
All these data can indicate that the improvements in cognitive and social abilities promoted by taekwondo in developmental age have a high ecological value and can be generalized to other contexts of daily life.
Advertising message A study by the University Hospital of Maastricht (Pons van Dijk, 2013) examined 24 subjects between 41 and 71 years of age. The volunteers, all in good health, took part in a taekwondo training lasting 15 months, engaging in a weekly training lasting 1 hour. The research results showed a significant increase in cognitive performance, detected at the beginning and end of the program. A significant improvement was highlighted above all in the processing speed in relation to inhibitory control tasks.
Another study (Cho et al., 2019) involved 40 women with an average age of 69 years. The sample was divided into a 16-week taekwondo training group and a control group. The results emerged are in line with those observed in children: a significant increase in plasma levels of the aforementioned neurotrophic factors (BDNF, VEGF and IGN-1) and an increase in cognitive performance at the Stroop Test.
The state of research is still at an early stage, however the results are promising. It seems that the practice of taekwondo works on a multidimensional plane: neuroplastic (increase in neurotrophic indicators), cognitive (ability to concentrate and control), physical (flexibility, strength and precision), emotional (mediation, control of emotions) and social (respect mutual and individual responsibility). All these characteristics make taekwondo a sport that can be considered suitable for slowing down physiological neurodegeneration processes in old age and for improving cognitive performance especially in younger people.