Exercise Won't Cure ADHD on Its Own, but It Sure Can't Hurt

Lo and behold, if you let seven-year-olds run around a few minutes during the school day, they're more chill.

(Photo: Mijang Ka/Getty Images)

Oct 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
TakePart fellow Jessica Dollin studied journalism at the University of Arizona. She has written for the Phoenix New Times and HerCampus.

The results of a study published this week in Pediatrics reinforced a growing body of research suggesting that physical activity is helpful in reducing symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children.

The study, which involved more than 200 students ages seven to nine, took place over a ninth-month period in Urbana, Ill. Scientists compared the brain activity of students involved in an after-school program that required 70 minutes of physical activity and those who were on a wait list for the program. The control group did not increase its physical activity.

Kids who were the most physically active showed the greatest improvement in terms of memory, reasoning, switching between tasks, and problem solving.

Earlier studies have shown that exercise results in heightened brain activity, specifically working memory. The most recent study set itself apart by showing evidence of improved executive control—a big predictor of success later in life. Participants showed the ability to resist distraction and easily switch between tasks. Kids who had the rate of highest attendance in the after-school program had the most brain function and control. Students on the wait list showed no significant differences in brain activity.

ADHD is characterized by developmentally inappropriate, inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive behaviors. The most widely used treatment for the disorder are pharmaceuticals such as Adderall, Vyvanse, and Concerta.

The prevalence of children ages four to 17 who took ADHD medication jumped from 4.8 percent to 6.1 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ADHD drugs, which are amphetamines chemically similar to the recreational drugs known as speed or meth, can be highly addictive. Exercise programs for kids, meanwhile, are a decreasing priority and are underfunded, The Atlantic reported.

“Students are coming to class and sitting all day essentially underprepared when it comes to the nutrition and energy levels they need to truly be alert and ready to learn,” said Rob Bisceglie CEO of the advocacy group Action for Healthy Kids. “Healthy kids learn better,” he added.

Physical activity, much like stimulant drugs, triggers the brain to release dopamine and serotonin. The authors of the study expressed concern that reducing physical activity in schools might have unintended effects. In the United States, policies that cut physical education in favor of more time spent drilling for standardized tests could therefore be counterproductive.

The authors of the study suggest that children should partake in daily physical activity—and the more physical activity kids engage in, the better.

Although exercise is helpful for alleviating symptoms of ADHD, it will not necessarily replace medication, said Dr. Ruth Hughes, a special advisor at the organization Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. She said that treatment should never be about just medication; other factors, such as a healthy diet and a highly structured environment, can help treat the condition.

“About two-thirds of children with ADHD also have other co-occurring disorders such as learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, autism spectrum, oppositional defiant disorder, etc. When these related issues are well addressed it also allows doctors to reduce the dosage of medication or to stop medication,” Hughes said. Insurance companies are not required to reimburse doctors for treatment for many of these conditions at the same rate as they reimburse for pharmaceuticals, though, which could be leading physicians to prescribe medications to kids who might benefit from other courses, such as therapy.

In the past children with ADHD were identified as troublemakers or unmotivated.

“The real causes of the increase in diagnosis are probably increased awareness, better access to health care, and some less-than-thorough diagnostic examinations,” Hughes said.

The recent increase in use of anti-ADHD pharmaceuticals has been the subject of controversy. “I don’t personally think that ADHD children, on the whole, are overmedicated,” said Dr. Rafael Klorman, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

But the more kids who are diagnosed with ADHD, the more income for big pharma, according to Dr. Lawrence Diller, author of Running on Ritalin.

“The vast majority of kids being treated for ADHD are amendable with environmental influence, but a great bulk of those children wind up on medicine,” Diller said.