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Doctors Find Simple Non-Drug Way to Help Children with ADHD

ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Children with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder are sometimes misconstrued as being wild or out-of control. There are some children who just cannot seem to sit still, thus leading to an inability to focus on their school work. Doctors have found a simple solution to the problem – give the kids more time during the day for physical activity.

As adults, we know, after many years of research, that exercise has multiple benefits for the body and the mind, including improving blood flow to the brain to maintain its proper functioning. A popular productivity technique for when we have an afternoon slump is to take a walk around the building to get the blood flowing. Writers also get up and move around to break through writers block.

We now know that the same can be said for children. Just twenty minutes a day may help kids with trouble focusing settle in enough to read or solve a math problem.

A research team led by Matthew B. Pontifex of Michigan State University recruited 20 eight- to ten-year old children with diagnosed or suspected ADHD and 20 kids without a diagnosis of the same age and family-income level. All of the children took a standard test of their ability to ignore distractions and stay focused on a simple task – the main aspect of cognition that troubles kids with ADHD. The children also completed standardized tests of reading, spelling and math skills after either exercising on a treadmill for 20 minutes or after 20 minutes of quiet reading.

Both groups of children performed better on the tests after the exercise than after the quiet time. On the test of focusing ability, the kids with ADHD performed better after the treadmill exercise than after the reading session.

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The study was small and only looked at the short-term effect of a single bout of exercise, however, because even the kids without a diagnosis of ADHD were better able to focus after exercising, it adds to the research that indicates that exercise during the day helps all children perform better at schoolwork than those who do not and that physical education is an important part of the school day.

“Exercise turns on the attention system, the so-called executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention,” says John Ratey MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (not involved with the study). “On a practical level, it causes kids to be less impulsive, which makes them more primed to learn.”

And there really isn’t a down side to increasing children’s exercise time. “Exercise is beneficial for all children," Pontifex noted. "We're providing some evidence that there's an additional benefit on cognition." Dr. Ratey suggests finding an activity that children like, such as a team activity or exercise with a social component. Studies also find that tae kwon do, ballet and gymnastics, in which you have to pay close attention to body systems, are a very good activity for children with ADHD.

Of course, parents should not substitute exercise for medication without first speaking with their physician. "We're not suggesting that exercise is a replacement, or that parents should pull their kids off of their medication," Pontifex said. But adding exercise to the treatment plan may help successfully reduce the dosage, or get more benefit from the medications they are already on, Dr. Pontifex added.

Journal Reference:
Matthew B. Pontifex, et al. Exercise Improves Behavioral, Neurocognitive, and Scholastic Performance in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. The Journal of Pediatrics, published online 19 October 2012.

Additional Resource:
ADDitude Magazine, December/January 2008 issue.

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