Research has previously shown that daily exercise can help reduce symptoms of ADHD. A new study specifically looked at exercise programs early in the day, before school and found that children with ADHD had reduced inattention and moodiness both at school and at home.
Dr John Ratey, the co-author of Driven to Distraction, looked at the effect of exercise on the brain. He became interested in this topic after hearing about a school in Illinois that instituted a daily exercise program. Although the program was meant to improve the health of the students, the school found that students were learning better. In his book, Sparks; The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. Ratey explains that exercise can, and should, be a tool to help combat symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, stress and depression. Other research has come to the same conclusions: exercise should be an important component of ADHD treatment. It helps improve executive functioning, increases focus and decreases hyperactivity and impulsiveness.
There is science behind why exercise is a good option for those with ADHD. Exercise increases levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin levels in the brain. This is the same thing that happens when you take stimulant medication. Some people have lowered or eliminated medication and replaced it with an exercise program.
In the latest study, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Vermont looked at around 200 early education students (from kindergarten to second grade) - 94 with ADHD and 108 without ADHD. For over 12 weeks, approximately half of the students participated in an early morning exercise program consisting of moderate to vigorous physical activity and the other half were given sedentary activities, such as art activities. The morning activity, both exercise or art, lasted for 31 minutes each day.
The students were evaluated for ADHD symptoms, including attention, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, opposition, moodiness and how well they got along with their classmates before the study began an after it ended. The results of the study showed that both groups showed improvement in these areas, however the children with ADHD had more significant improvement. Both parents and teachers indicated improvement, meaning the affects of the exercise continued when the children arrived home in the afternoon. Interestingly, oppositional behavior did not show any improvement in either group.
The researchers were excited by the findings, stating, "Despite the number of remaining questions, physical activity appears to be a promising intervention method for ADHD with well-known benefits to health overall."
It isn’t clear yet how much exercise is needed or if this amount changes based on a person’s age. Further research is needed to determine how much exercise can combat ADHD symptoms. Dr. Ratey, however, states that aerobic exercises, such as running, biking, swimming, walking, dancing and jumping rope work well, as do complex exercises, such as martial arts, that combine physical activity and skills. Dr. Ratey also suggests about six hours of exercise per week, although this can be broken down into two times per day for six days. He emphasizes, however, that the type of exercise doesn’t matter as much as getting involved in some type of physical activity.