Going Back to School

One thing’s for sure when children return to school in September is that that they will be sitting down a lot more.

Children have had, in most cases, increasing degrees of freedom over the course of the pandemic to spend more time outdoors with more opportunity for outdoor play. The incredible spring/summer weather has enabled many families to spend more time outdoors than ever before.

The chair’s a brain drainer!

Children struggle to concentrate at school partly because they have to sit still for too many hours a day, just like many of their parents in their offices.

While sitting in chairs for long periods, blood flow in the lower leg and foot becomes sluggish due to gravity and is further aggravated by tight fitting shoes.

As blood pools in the reservoirs of the legs, the circulation to the head and brain becomes less efficient. The ability to concentrate reduces in proportion to any shortfall in oxygenation. Mammals “yawn” when they’re tired, an instinctive act to up the oxygen levels!

A recent article in the Sunday times backs this up with reports of children having “twitchy fingers” (too much computer gaming) and also falling asleep at their desks.

The six month break from schooling, for the first time ever, meant that children were out of practice in terms of concentrating.

Pumping blood from legs to brain

The venous blood in the lower legs relies on a muscular pump to literally squeeze this venous blood back up the leg in response to movement.

It’s a form of peristaltic pump – the “squeeze” provided on the outside of the “tube” by the contracting calf muscles.

Calf muscles

This pump is disabled during sitting. The chair has a lot to answer for..

Playgrounds/playtime/Physical Education are important to maintain good circulation to and from the legs so that whole body, including the brain, gets well oxygenated.

Standing still for long periods reduces blood flow to the brain and can cause fainting as the body becomes unconscious.

Sitting in chairs for long periods affects brain function on a more subtle level, with the reduction in blood flow affecting the ability to concentrate.

Concentration takes effort and requires energy. Its harder to concentrate when you’re tired.

Good exercises for children’s legs are squats done with good technique plus hopping/skipping/jumping to get the calf and foot muscles going.

Another activity that gets the legs working in ways you may have never imagined is Karate.

A wide range of kicking techniques are practised in Karate which develop flexibility in the hips at different angles and heights. The kicks are complemented by stance work which strengthens the leg and hip muscles which, in turn, improves support at the joints.


Karate kicks are muscular pumps

The biggest and strongest muscles in our bodies are in our hips and legs.

That means they require the most blood, especially during intense exercise.

By using these big muscles in kicking, karate provides an excellent mechanism for boosting circulation.

Arterial, oxygenated blood is pumped to the legs by the heart, while venous, deoxygenated blood is “pumped” back to the heart by the legs.

karate kicks

Body maps in the mind

Developing good kicking technique is a big challenge for most people.

It requires balance, flexibility, coordination and speed.

Children usually possess most, if not all these qualities, naturally.

The difficult part, especially for children, is forming and holding the foot/ankle position.

This requires the brain to direct the body in fine, as opposed to gross movement.

The map of hands and feet in the brain is large due to the amount of brain “power” required for intricate movements and explains why handwriting is such a tough skill to master for children.

Forming a fist or a foot position correctly requires greater mental effort than say a gross movement like lifting a knee or bending an elbow.

The attention to detail with hands and feet emphasised in Karate Jutsu techniques, (for reasons of both form and application), ensure both mind and body stay active.

The wide range of skills and abilities developed in Karate training transfer well into other aspects of life, the obvious being sporting performance but less obviously, academic performance often also improves.

The barefoot advantage

Hands are clearly more dexterous than feet but feet remain under used in modern societies, spending most of their time covered up in shoes.

Shoes not only restrict movement of the foot and toe joints, they also act as sensory deprivation chambers, dulling the sensation and feedback the foot gives the brain.
Everyone should spend less time in shoes where possible. Imagine wearing gloves all day!

Training in barefoot allows the toes to be used for balance and gripping during movement and also to form different positions for kicks.

The detail in forming foot positions requires the mind to be absorbed in the challenge of controlling the smallest detail of the body. To kick correctly takes a lot of mental effort, what we know as concentration – perfect for kids!

While maintaining this fine control, the rest of the leg and body are involved in the bigger movements of kicking. This requires more physical effort and a coordinated action of muscular contraction/relaxation at high speed.

The beauty of karate training is this balanced involvement of the mind and body – mental effort and physical effort acting simultaneously.

Karate Kids

Karate Jutsu can improve joint function

Many children have very flexible ankles (sometimes referred to as “hyper mobile”) which can cause problems, especially when kicking.

Correct technique should have a therapeutic effect on joint function and Karate Jutsu instructors know what to look for to prevent an injury in the making.

The Karate Jutsu system has been designed in harmony with the body’s anatomy and biomechanics to minimise stress on vulnerable joints like knees and ankles.

Optimal joint health is developed by placing an equal emphasis on strength and flexibility. When the ratio between strength and flexibility becomes skewed too far in either direction, injuries result.

Spinal health

The other thing wrong with sitting is slumping and slouching!

This is now a SPINAL issue.

Postures can deteriorate at a young age and set a poor blueprint for adulthood if neglected. This is worse for children who are academically orientated but don’t play sport or do any exercise. Bookworms! So ANY EXERCISE is better than none.

In terms of helping spinal/postural problems, martial arts are usually helpful.

Done with poor technique however, they have the potential to distort posture and cause injury.

The educational component of a Karate Jutsu class is designed to improve a student’s understanding of their own body and teach them how to use it with good technique.

This is particularly good for children going through growth spurts, where the more body control and awareness that can be instilled, the better.

By using realistic stances (not excessively long or low) which conform to the natural geometry of the body, Karate Jutsu training minimises stress on the spinal/ pelvic joints. The less stress on the body’s tissues, the more efficient the technique.

Karate kid

Postural muscles and respiratory muscles

Holding or moving in a karate stance is not just about the legs.

The postural muscles of the body play an important role in transmitting power from the legs to the arms and undergo a form of “tuning” during punching and kicking as both sides of the body are worked equally.

The neurological/biomechanical “gap” between dominant and non dominant hands and feet becomes progressively smaller as the non dominant side “catches up.”

Sports/activities that are naturally asymmetric like tennis and cricket tend to build up imbalances and ultimately injuries.

Karate therefore provides a system of exercise which can help rebalance the body as opposed to create imbalance.

And what about that “funny noise they make” – it’s a loud shout known as a “KIAI” in Japanese.

This powerful exhalation tenses the whole body in a similar way to a cough.

Singing and shouting, (if you have to!), are good exercises for the muscles of respiration.

Those same respiratory muscles, for the most part, double up as postural muscles.

Intense bouts of coughing can give cause unfamiliar strains in the neck, back, ribs and abdomen for days afterwards.

While training, a KIAI is usually performed towards the “end” of a technique.

This intensifies the contraction of the postural muscles as they “find” their position with an erect spine and FOCUS the technique.

So punching in a karate stance with a kiai works the WHOLE BODY!

It’s also a form of psychological/emotion release – as adults we are conditioned not to shout unless for a specific reason.

In terms of children, it’s the quieter/shyer ones that are more likely to become the victim of bullies.

The Kiai can therefore reduce emotional stress and tension in both adults and children and help address psychological issues such as shyness or hyperactivity.

It’s also a perfect tool for lungs that like shouting – commonly known as kids!