Research suggests that exercise may be an important tool in helping children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) improve academic performance and attention. The study titled, "Exercise Improves Behavioral, Neurocognitive, and Scholastic Performance in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder," published in the Journal of Pediatrics (October 2012) finds that kids with ADHD can better tune out distractions and stay focused on a task after a single 20 minute bout of moderately intense aerobic exercise.
The Research Study
The study included 20 children with ADHD (6 females) age 8 to 10 and a control peer group of 20 children without ADHD. Both groups were instructed to spend 20 minutes either walking briskly on a treadmill or remaining seated for the same duration while reading. The subjects then took a brief (approximately 15 minute) reading comprehension, spelling and math exam. They also played a computer game that assessed their ability to ignore visual stimuli and distractions and stay focused on a simple task at hand.
Matthew B. Pontifex, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University and lead author of the study, and his colleagues evaluated task performance, neuroelectric measures, and academic performance and found that both groups -- the children with and without ADHD -- demonstrated enhanced performance after exercise than after sitting and reading. In the computer game, those with ADHD also were better able to slow down after making an error to avoid repeat mistakes.
What Does This Mean for Parents and Teachers?
"Exercise is beneficial for all children," Pontifex said. "We're providing some evidence that there's an additional benefit on cognition." Pontifex's findings support the need for planned physical activity throughout the day. Schools may see increased academic performance in both those students with ADHD and those without by incorporating short bouts of exercise during the school day as part of a comprehensive school-based physical activity program. This may be especially beneficial for students with ADHD.
"Given that previous research has found that children with ADHD are less likely to participate in vigorous physical activity and organized sports compared with children without ADHD, our findings suggest that motivating children with ADHD to be physically active may have positive effects on aspects of neurocognitive function and inhibitory control," noted investigators.
Further Research Needs
Further research is needed to explore how long the beneficial effects of a single bout of exercise last, whether regular exercise might have longer term effects on a student's ability to focus or on their school performance, and how exercise may combine and compare with other more traditional ADHD treatment strategies. It would also be helpful to better understand the specific aspects and mechanisms of exercise that improve cognitive function. Additionally, it should be noted that the study's ADHD group represented a subpopulation of children with less severe symptoms of ADHD, so it is unclear the extent to which results would generalize to children with more severe cases of ADHD.
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Matthew B. Pontifex, PhD; Brian J. Saliba, BS; Lauren B. Raine, BS; Daniel L. Picchietti, MD; and Charles H. Hillman, PhD; "Exercise Improves Behavioral, Neurocognitive, and Scholastic Performance in Children With ADHD," Journal of Pediatrics, online October 19, 2012.
Michigan State University, news release: Exercise may lead to better school performance for kids with ADHD, October 16, 2012.