Exercise with ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms improve with the incorporation of a physical activity regime

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with scattered thoughts and excess energy - and researchers suggest exercise might help them.

A new study available through the Journal of Attention Disorders recommends incorporating a structured physical activity program to enhance behavioral assessments, cognitive processing power, motor skills, and muscle capacity.

"Talk to your pediatrician about the right physical activity for your child."

Louise Béliveau, PhD, a kinesiologist at an ADHD clinic in Canada, acted as corresponding author on the study. “A main finding of this study is that both parents and teachers observed better behavioral scores in the physical activity group,” she explains. “This could mean that positive effects of physical activity may occur in different settings of the children's life.”

The doctor and a team of five studied 21 children aged seven to twelve, recruited from Dr. Béliveau’s clinic as well as from a nearby school. Only participants being treated for general ADHD took part in the study, and they were divided into experimental and control groups.

A physical training program was incorporated three times a week for ten weeks into the adolescent’s 45-minute lunch break. A physical specialist supervised sessions, starting with a warm up, followed by a progressive regime filled with cardio, muscular development and motor skills exercises, finalized with a cool down. Each session maintained a “vigorous intensity,” according to authors.

Progress was measured within ten days before and after the program. In the 24 hours before testing, Dr. Béliveau and her team instructed parents to prohibit physical activity, as well as stimulant medication in order to obtain accurate assessments. The research team collected measures of heart rate, BMI, flexibility and muscular endurance. Attention and behavioral were assessed with the Test of Everyday Attention for Children and Child Behavior Checklist, respectively.

“Findings show that participation in a physical activity program improves muscular capacities, motor skills, behavior reports by parents and teachers and level of information processing,” the doctor reports.

The results indicated that children within the experimental physical activity group showed higher levels of information processing compounded with reductions in “social problems, thought problems and attention problems.” Moreover, depression scores also improved.

dailyRx contributing expert LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, works as a mental health therapist, coach and author at Denver’s Turning Points Counseling Center. Additionally, LuAnn writes an adult ADHD blog, and explains, “The idea that movement improves ADHD behavior and certain cognitive processes makes sense.

“Russell Barkley, international ADHD expert, recommends the following to educators who teach ADHD kids: ‘Give frequent physical exercise breaks throughout the school day [and] allow some restlessness at the work area or desk as long as the child is working.’”

Pierce explains to dailyRx that “fidgeting,” a behavior common amongst children with ADHD, is widely believed to be a coping mechanism for those with the disorder. “Allowing kids (and adults) with ADHD to fidget is believed to actually help stimulate working memory, as the prevailing theory is that the ADHD brain is under-stimulated.”

Nonetheless, Pierce warns that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that physical activity alone can bring patients with ADHD to normative thought patterns.

“Expectations for those with ADHD who are participating in physical activity should remain realistic,” she recommends. “Barkley has always maintained that a few minutes of exercise several times per day will net the best results for these kids and adults.”

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 19, 2012
Last Updated:
October 3, 2012