Exercise – A Natural Treatment for ADHD

Have you noticed that your child’s ADHD symptoms seem better on days when they are more active? Are they able to sit and focus on their homework more easily once they’ve run around and “burned off some energy” after school? Researchers have only recently begun studying the effects of exercise on ADHD, but results from early studies are promising. Engaging in moderate-to intense-exercise multiple days a week appears to improve ADHD symptoms, executive functioning (read more about executive functioning in my previous post), social skills, and motor control. A recent study by Dr. Betsy Hoza, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, compared two interventions in elementary schools. The first was a 30-minutes exercise intervention that included moderate- to-intense physical activity through games like tag and “sharks and minnows”. The second intervention was sedentary, and included 30-minutes of classroom art projects. Both occurred before school every day for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12-week period parent and teachers rated the children on ADHD symptoms, moodiness, social skills and motor skills. Kids in the physical activity program showed improvement in each of these areas.

Scientists aren’t sure why exercise leads to improvement in ADHD symptoms and other areas of weakness for kids with ADHD, but they have some theories. During exercise the brain releases several chemicals – serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine  – which are all important for attention and emotional control. In fact, many of the stimulant medications used to treat ADHD target these same chemicals. So, it may be this exercise “brain boost” that drives improvements in ADHD symptoms, mood, social skills, and motor control. Exercise also improves blood flow in the brain and promotes the development of new brain cells, two factors that may also lead to improvements in ADHD symptoms.  We’ll learn more about how exercise and ADHD symptoms are related as additional research is done.

In the meantime, take advantage of what we already know and help your child get active! It’s easier to get some kids moving than others. If you have a naturally active child, then finding time and an activity for them to do regularly may be your main challenge. If your child is more of a couch potato, then you’ll need to be a bit more strategies about how you get them moving!

  • You’ll have the most success long-term if you find activities that can fit into your child’s regular routine. Simple things like getting to school 15 minutes early so your child can spend time on the play structure, taking time a couple of evenings a week to supervise your child while they ride their bike outside or play in the backyard, or talking to your child’s afterschool program about the availability of activities that require kids to be physically active.
  • If your child is spending most of their time indoors these days, look into apps and websites that encourage physical activity. I’m a big fan of GoNoodle, an app that allows kids to choose from guided activities like dance- and sing-alongs, Zumba® for kids, track and field activities, and more.
  • Get physically active with your kids. Outdoor activities like swimming, hiking, and skating are great, but simple activities can be good too. Invite your child to come with you when you walk the dog or work in the yard. You can turn every day activities like these into special one-on-one or family bonding time. If you’re stuck indoors, try to get creative. Kids always love a spontaneous family dance party!

We’ve always known that exercise is great for physical health, and promising new research is showing that it may help with ADHD symptoms too. While it’s not a cure for ADHD, exercise is a great supplement to any ADHD management program. So, give your child the boost they may need by helping them be more physically active every day!

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