Exercise and Attention Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Kids

Exercise for Kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often experience behavioural and cognitive challenges. Exercise is known to influence brain function and structure, and research suggests a positive association between increased physical activity and ADHD symptoms, particularly behavioural and cognitive improvements.

Currently, medication and behaviour modification techniques are used to manage ADHD. Physical activity and exercise can help to support these interventions and can have multiple physical and mental health and well-being benefits for children with ADHD.

What are the benefits?

The mechanism behind the role of exercise for adolescents with ADHD can be due to the changes in brain structure and behavioural regulation that exercise promotes. Exercise may influence ADHD by increasing the availability of a chemical signal in the brain. Research suggests that exercise naturally stimulates the brain in a similar way to medication. Exercise may also be particularly effective for adolescents struggling with medication and/or behavioural interventions, as exercise also comes without negative side-effects.

Children and adolescents who have ADHD can often experience reductions in working memory, goal-oriented activity, and emotional regulation. Regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and exercise has been found to be associated with the following cognitive benefits:

– Improved brain processing speed
– Working memory » Greater planning and problem-solving ability
– Reduced impulsivity
– Reduced anxiety
– Improved attention

In particular, brain function and working memory may be heightened immediately after exercise. Therefore, it’s important to continue to exercise on a regular basis.

Things to remember

Adolescents with ADHD are often less likely to participate in organised sport and regular physical activity. This may be due to a number of reasons including reduced confidence or interest due to difficulty with movement planning or motor skills or in finding programs that are inclusive of children with behavioural challenges. Whichever the reason, they are at the same risk as their age-matched peers for a multitude of negative health implications associated with inactivity.

From evidence, we know adolescents with ADHD will see the same gains in muscular capacity, strength, aerobic fitness, motor planning, motor skill development, etc. as their age-matched peers, which contributes to increased self-esteem and confidence. Therefore, participation in regular exercise can have a holistic effect on not only behaviour and cognition but improvements can be seen in other skill deficits, as well as improved physical well-being.

Types of exercise recommended

– Regular varied exercise that the child or adolescent enjoys should be a regular part of daily life.

– Adolescents with ADHD should participate in at least 60 minutes or more of exercise per day and reduce their daily screen-time in line with Australian Physical Activity guidelines for children and adolescents.

– Participation in sport and structured exercise can focus energies and reduce negative behaviours.

– Yoga 1-2 times per week can help regulate behaviours. Poses, breath control, mental concentration, and deep relaxation will positively affect mental states by promoting self-control, attention and concentration, self-efficacy, body awareness, and stress reduction. The practice of yoga exercise elicits reduced activation of the sympathetic nervous system (active state) and increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation state) resulting in increased emotional self-regulation.

Ask the professionals

An Accredited Exercise Physiologist will be able to tailor an exercise plan that is safe and based on the individual needs of a child with ADHD.

Parents and guardians

The role of exercise is not necessarily to replace medication and behaviour modification strategies, but to work as a complementing therapy. However, it has been noted in at least one study that children with ADHD who performed high intensity exercise most days of the week were able to reduce their medication intake. It should also be noted that each individual will respond differently to exercise, thus benefits may vary.

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Content provided by Exercise Right for Kids via the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder page.