When you think of a child with ADHD, a certain stereotype may come to mind: a child who is bursting with energy, struggling to stay seated and focused at school, but happy and engaged when they are physically active. While there have always been many reasons to challenge this stereotype, findings from a recent study about physical activity and ADHD have added one more.
The study, published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, examined data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health. The survey was administered by the U.S. Census Bureau and the final sample included data from 34,675 households with children between the ages of 6 and 17. In the sample, 11.7% (4,057 children) had an ADHD diagnosis based on their caregiver’s report. The researchers looked at how likely children in the ADHD group were to meet the American Academy of Pediatrics’(AAP) recommendation of engaging in at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
Overall, children and teens with a diagnosis of ADHD were significantly less likely to meet the AAP physical activity recommendation than children and teens without ADHD. The results from this study add to recent findings from studies with smaller samples showing that children and teens with ADHD are less likely than their non-ADHD peers to engage in several health behaviors, including eating a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and participation in organized sports.
The potential positive impact of regular physical activity on ADHD symptoms is profound, with research suggesting that it can lead to improvements in impulsive behavior, focus, organization, and social relationships, as well as other factors often related to ADHD like mood, anxiety, and sleep. Unfortunately, the ADHD stereotype may be contributing to medical providers, therapists, school counselors, and even parents failing to adequately address the lower levels of physical activity seen in some kids and teens with the disorder. In fact, while many kids and teens with ADHD are indeed hyperactive and constantly on the move, more than 50% of those with an ADHD diagnosis may not experience any symptoms of hyperactivity.
On top of this, teens who may have been hyperactive as a child may have outgrown these ADHD symptoms without adding any structured physical activities to their routines to counteract the effects of the decreased activity. Symptoms of depression and sleep problems are also common, especially among teens with ADHD, and both can quickly result in decreased physical activity.
If you notice that your child or teen with ADHD isn’t getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, make changing their exercise habits a priority. Adding structured activities like organized sports (either team-based on the individual) is one of the easiest ways to ensure that they will become more active. Incorporating outdoor activities or fun outings like swimming, roller skating, skateboarding, or hiking into your family’s weekend plans can also be a big help.
If you have a child or teen who is “exercise resistant,” working with them to come up with creative ideas for engaging in physical activities that map onto their interests (even the most sedentary, video game-obsessed kid can get into Pokémon GO!). And of course, don’t feel like you and your child or teen need to figure this out on your own. Talk to your pediatrician and mental health professional about your concerns. They’ll be able to draw on their experiences with countless other families in similar situations to help you find activities and solutions that match your child and your family’s unique needs.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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