For most people, exercise is an important part of caring for their physical and mental health. When it comes to ADHD, what works best for symptom management will vary from person to person. Often, a combination of different approaches - for example, a combination of ADHD medication, therapy, accommodations at work or school, and apps or games like Joon - is most advantageous to combat impairments.
This article will walk through a systematic review and meta-analysis of the benefits of exercise in children with ADHD, how exercise impacts the brain and other benefits.
Benefits of Exercise in Children with ADHD
ADHD or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity, or a mix of both. For a diagnosis of ADHD to take place, these symptoms must be clinically significant. ADHD can impact all areas of life, including academic performance, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, working memory, and more. While a person can receive a diagnosis of ADHD at any age, symptoms of ADHD always start by the age of 12.
Learning to manage symptoms matters, and what works best can certainly vary from individual to individual. Lifestyle factors such as physical activity and nutrition, alongside treatments such as medications, games or apps, parent training, and therapy, can play an important role. Research shows that the effects of physical exercise can have a positive impact on people with ADHD by improving their symptoms, and, therefore, quality of life.
Benefits of exercise in children with ADHD can include:
- A decrease in ADHD symptoms. First and foremost, studies show that physical activity can lead to improvement in ADHD symptoms themselves. Although it may not be a replacement for ADHD treatments such as stimulant medication, it can lead to the reduction of inattention symptoms specifically, as well as some reduction in hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms. It can also help with executive function without side effects.
- Better engagement in cognitive performance. Improved motor skills, behavior, and cognitive function have been identified after both acute and long-term exercise in those with ADHD. This means that consistent exercise for children with ADHD can be helpful long-term and that a single bout of physical activity can also help right away, too. One study found that both children living with ADHD and healthy controls experience better reading and mathematical skills after one session consisting of 20 minutes of aerobic exercise. Another control group on kids with ADHD where the children engaged in physical activity consistently for 11 weeks showed that teacher-reported scores of ADHD symptoms were lower in the children by the end of those 11 weeks.
- Lower levels of depression, anxiety, and aggression. Depression and anxiety are both common comorbidities for those who live with ADHD. One study on the impacts of physical exercise on kids with ADHD found that engaging in physical activity can lower depression and anxiety levels for this population. Social improvements and lower levels of aggressive behavior were also discovered. Since these are both things that children who live with ADHD may also struggle with, this is a notable advantage.
How Exercise Impacts the Brain
Regular exercise is known have certain cognitive benefits such as increase blood flow and release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. With the connection between ADHD and dopamine in mind, it makes sense that physical activity can help with certain symptoms and challenges that can come with these brain functions.
Physical activity is known to improve focus, mood, and cognitive function in the general population as well as those with ADHD, and it can come with many other benefits to brain structure too.
Although the amount of exercise used in research looking at the connection between physical activity and ADHD differs from study to study, there are general recommendations for how much exercise the average, healthy person should get. Kids aged 6-17 should get an hour more of physical activity per day as recommended by the CDC. Those aged 5 or below should remain active throughout the day.
If this is more than you might expect, remember that many different activities count. For example, team sports, gymnastics, dance, walking, climbing trees, running, martial arts, or anything else that your child likes to do.
Many children and adolescents get physical activity through playing outdoors, taking part in physical education at school, involvement in afterschool activities, and more. When activities include other children, kids get a chance to connect with their peers and practice social skills. Exercise can also be a confidence or self-esteem booster, which is often powerful for those who live with ADHD.
Other Benefits of Exercise
Even if it’s not a sole treatment for ADHD, there are many other benefits and positive effects of having an exercise program. These can include but aren’t limited to:
Better cardiovascular health
Intense exercise can both protect and improve cardiovascular or heart health while combating childhood obesity. This is true for a number of different reasons. Physical activity improves blood flow, helps the heart arteries dilate more readily, and can support the management of healthy heart rate and blood pressure.
Although it is certainly not the only factor that plays a role in heart health, research confirms that physical activity can have a positive impact. Other factors that affect heart health include but aren’t limited to genetics, stress levels, sleep, and more.
Sleep disorders and difficulty getting enough sleep are common across the general population, and it’s even more of a problem for individuals who live with ADHD. People with ADHD are known, after all, to experience insomnia at a higher rate. Kids aged 6-12 should get around 9-12 hours of sleep per night, but unfortunately, it is common that they don’t.
According to the Sleep Foundation website, physical activity correlates with helping you sleep better, and it is somewhat of a cycle; getting adequate sleep can also make getting appropriate physical activity the next day more likely. Getting enough sleep is also associated with better symptom management in people who have ADHD.
Stress management is one of the most crucial things we can take part in for both our bodies and our minds. A large body of research confirms that the effects of physical activity can aid stress relief - and various forms of exercise can make a difference at that. An added bonus is that exercise may support anger management.
A longer life
Among all of the other positive effects of exercise, it is known to lengthen your life expectancy and can reduce the risk of various diseases. In addition to heart disease, these include type 2 diabetes, dementia, and some types of cancer.
Anyone can benefit from the intervention of regular physical activity that they enjoy. Physical activity can have both an immediate positive impact and a long-term positive impact on young children with ADHD.
Exercise can help with cognitive function, self-control, school performance, focus, mood or emotional regulation, and more. Although it is not a singular treatment for ADHD and shouldn’t replace the treatments recommended by a medical or mental health professional who specializes in ADHD, physical activity is an important part of maintaining well-being and can be a key component of finding relief, symptom management, and improved quality of life for some people who live with ADHD.
This article is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for individual medical or mental health advice. Please consult with your or your child's prescribing doctor before changing, starting, or stopping a medication routine.