Physical Exercise Can Alleviate Symptoms of ADHD in Children

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In addition to improving overall health and well-being, physical exercise can help reduce anxiety and depression in children with ADHD.

The benefits of staying active and exercising at every stage of life are universally known. However, a growing body of research points to specific benefits for children and adolescents who struggle with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Young people with ADHD often experience anxiety, impulsiveness, and an inability to focus attention for significant lengths of time. Getting enough physical activity can help alleviate some of the common symptoms of ADHD as well as support overall brain and cognitive health.

In the Wake of COVID

It’s no secret that levels of physical fitness among young people have fallen in recent years. The reasons for the decline may be varied, however, there is little dispute that the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated what was already a steadily growing problem.

Even pre-COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only 24 percent of children 6 to 17 years of age participate in the 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical daily activity that has long been recommended in the “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.”
Being homebound and having many sports and physical fitness programs shut down during COVID-19 amplified the problem. An article in The North American Society for Pediatric Exercise Medicine reported “legitimate concerns have been raised about the exacerbation of the perpetual pandemic—physical inactivity and excessive time spent sitting. Indeed, dramatic increases in sedentary behavior (~3.1hr/d) and substantial reductions (33.5%) in physical activity have been reported globally during COVID-19 home confinement.” This, naturally, also led to a rapid increase in overweight and obesity among children.

Mercy Medical Center Pediatrician, Dr. Emily Wisniewski, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has noticed this trend in her work with children. In an email to The Epoch Times, she explained, “COVID has 100 percent decreased physical activity levels in children. Physical activity has not only been connected to physical/medical health benefits such as decreased obesity, diabetes, and cholesterol, but also decreased risk for other mental health comorbidities like depression and anxiety. Patients with ADHD are at increased risk for other mental health co-morbidities in general. By not having access to these physical activities, they are more at risk.”

The Positive Effect of Exercise

For children, since this shift towards a more sedentary lifestyle is taking place during a stage of life during which habits are being formed and a foundation is being laid for future health, the negative impact is potentially far-reaching. For young people living with ADHD, getting enough physical activity may be even more important, and the effects of a sedentary lifestyle even more acute.

Research highlights the association between physical activity and reduced symptoms of ADHD, leading many experts to recommend physical exercise as a significant part of the treatment plan for ADHD. A January 2020 review in Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation points out a significant overlap in the effects of exercise and common medications used to treat ADHD on the neurophysiology of ADHD patients, and notes that “In a similar way [to medication], exercise might compensate for dysregulated catecholamine [neurotransmitter] levels in ADHD and thereby improve cognitive and behavioral functioning.”

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Other studies have highlighted the positive role exercise can play in helping mitigate ADHD symptoms. A November 2019 meta-analysis published in Medicine, titled “Impact of physical exercise on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorders,” looked at 14 studies which included 574 children with ADHD. 276 participants were assigned to a physical activity group, while 298 were part of the control group. Although the different studies included various types of physical activity (i.e., swimming, basketball, or other types of exercise) and a range of ages among the participants, the overall results were consistently positive.

Study author Yu Zang concluded that “physical exercise has a major contribution owing to significant improvement in anxiety and depression, aggressive behaviors, thought and social problems among children suffering from ADHD. Therefore, physical exercise should be incorporated in the daily life of children with ADHD.”

Of particular note, the study also stated that “Depression is a major problem in children with ADHD. Scientific reports have shown pharmacological drugs which are used for the treatment of ADHD to further exacerbate depression in these subjects … Therefore, improving depression through physical exercise by these children with ADHD will result in far less use of pharmacological drugs, thus sparing these children from adverse drug events.”

Dr. Wisniewski adds, “[T]hose with ADHD are at increased risk for depression and anxiety at baseline. Physical activity … can increase the mental health wellbeing of those children with ADHD. It can also be helpful for these kiddos who are at baseline more impulsive and energetic to have a way to help release some of their energy and fuel it into an activity. Physical activity can also be a way for kiddos with ADHD to make connections and friends with other children, which can be something which may be difficult for them. [It] can bring kids together and allow them to have something in common to fuel friendship.”

Specific questions remain about what types of exercise may be best for youth living with ADHD, as well as what the optimal frequency may be. Nonetheless, these studies encourage physical activity as a helpful, low-risk tool that is often neglected among today’s youth—and especially for those living with ADHD.

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