Have you noticed that your child’s ADHD symptoms seem better on days when he or she is more active? Is your child able to sit and focus on his or her homework more easily once he or she has 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 him or her 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 strategic about how you get them moving!
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 he or she may need by helping him or her be more physically active every day
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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