Healthy Living

Kids With ADHD Find Benefits In Morning Exercise Before School, Calming Symptoms

exercise
The more we exercise, the better our brains are at planning, reasoning, and staying focused. Tommy Wong, CC BY 2.0

If the traditional methods for quieting your child’s ADHD symptoms don’t sit well with you — maybe bottle after bottle of Ritalin doesn’t have you convinced — new research suggests a round of morning exercise could do the trick.

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is thought to arise from deficiencies in the brain’s frontal cortex. The area is responsible for attention, reason, impulse control, and planning, and prior research has found it gets strengthened with frequent and consistent exercise. The latest findings build on these results, claiming kids with ADHD who exercise before school show greater improvements in attention than kids without the disorder.

“This gives schools one more good reason to incorporate physical activity into the school day,” said Alan Smith, co-researcher and chairperson of Michigan State University’s kinesiology department, in a statement.

Since its initial description in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 1952, as “Minimal Brain Dysfunction,” ADHD has been retooled and renamed several times over. As the disorder’s gained salience, its rates of diagnosis have increased. In 1973, researchers estimated just under six percent of the adolescent population had ADHD. By 1999, estimates had swelled to more than 16 percent. As of 2011, the latest year for which data is available, roughly 11 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD.

Smith and his colleagues were interested in learning how effective added exercise could be at quelling the disorder in a group of young students. They collected data on 200 kids, from kindergarten age through second grade, who either exhibited signs of ADHD or didn’t. The kids were randomly assigned to perform vigorous physical activity in the mornings for 12 weeks or complete their morning routines like usual.

“Although our findings indicated that all participants showed improvements, children with ADHD risk receiving exercise benefited across a broader range of outcomes than those receiving the sedentary activities,” Smith said.

As exercise quiets ADHD symptoms, the findings may quiet critics of overdiagnosis. These are the people who say ADHD is overdiagnosed in kids who would behave better if only they were told to sit still. Since the spike in the late 1990s, rates have started to deflate — a change in direction after two decades of swelling concern. The research suggests there’s a kernel of truth in the idea that kids with ADHD just need to run around a little bit more. They don’t need to be told to sit still, in other words. They just need to be given the time to move.

“Despite the number of remaining questions,” Smith said, referring to unknowns involving how much activity is necessary and among which ages, “physical activity appears to be a promising intervention method for ADHD with well-known benefits to health overall.”

Source: Hoza B, Smith A, Shoulberg E, et al. A Randomized Trial Examining the Effects of Aerobic Physical Activity on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Young Children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 2014.

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