The Importance of Exercise for Children with ADHD
Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr. Odell has also been the Clinical Director and President of South County Child and Family Consultants, a multidisciplinary group of private practitioners that specializes in assessment and interventions for children with learning disorders and attention difficulties.
Most children with ADHD are active, sometimes too active. It may well be that their activity level is a natural adaptation due to the fact that high levels of vigorous physical movement can change our brain chemistry to help us focus and handle stress. In fact, vigorous exercise leads to the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein inside nerve cells that can aid in concentration. The importance of exercise for children with ADHD cannot be overestimated. Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps and Olympic runner Justin Gatlin are among the many athletes who have been diagnosed with ADHD, and Phelps’ mother has described how his intensive swimming training enhanced his focus and concentration in school.
Exercise is important for children and even more so for children with ADHD. There have been a number of studies that demonstrate that being outdoors and engaged with nature can reduce some of the symptoms of ADHD. An interesting hypothesis developed by Thom Hartmann describes ADHD as an adaptive tool for primitive humans who were nomadic hunter-gatherers, always moving in the pursuit of food and safety. This need for movement is one of the main reasons that parents of children with ADHD must insist that their children have regular recess and physical education classes in school.
While it is very clear that exercise is a powerful tool for children with ADHD, a further understanding of specific strategies for choosing and using exercise can be crucial in making it most beneficial. Any and all exercise is seen as a positive intervention for children with ADHD, but there are strategies that can make it even more effective. These include:
1. Make your kid move fast for an hour. Keep their heart rate up for at least 30 minutes, and preferably 60. Studies suggest that children are more likely to show improvement in their focus and learning in the classroom when they are exercising at 80% of their maximum heart rate. This does not mean that they have to be running at full speed, but working out hard is important.
2. Make exercise complex. Exercise that involves many parts of the body requires sustained cognitive focus and concentration. Martial arts can be particularly helpful for children with ADHD. Many martial arts teachers are very knowledgeable about ADHD, but make sure that the instructor understands that your child has difficulty with sustained attention and is supportive rather than critical. Another complex physical activity is rock climbing. If you have mountains, hills, or a rock climbing gym nearby, start moving.
3. Play active video games. Games such as Wii Sports, Kinect Adventures, or Just Dance 4 involve a great deal of movement. Playing these games vigorously means an increase of heart rate to optimal levels, giving children the full benefits of exercise.
4. Exercise before school. A recent study demonstrates how exercise regimes in the morning before school reduced inattention and moodiness. Encourage your child to walk, run, or bicycle for 20 to 30 minutes prior to going to school. While this may be difficult due to time constraints, children with ADHD who exercise in the morning often display improved cognitive ability.
5. Choose sports and activities that keep your child engaged and focused. For example, if your child plays baseball or softball, encourage him to play a position that demands sustained focus throughout the game such as catcher, pitcher, or first baseman. Sports with nonstop movement such as soccer, lacrosse, and hockey are often better at helping children with ADHD remain attentive and engaged. For children with ADHD who prefer individual sports, an extreme sport such as skateboarding, snowboarding, or surfing may be a great choice to keep them fully engaged in their sport.
6. Send the kids outdoors. Studies have indicated that simply being in nature and moving outdoors for extended periods can help individuals improve their focus. So, even in the winter, it’s best to get them dressed up for the cold and running around in the snow, rather than letting them lounge around inside the house.
Learn more about Dr. Odell:
Dr. Odell is the author of numerous essays on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children in which he has developed concepts such as “play diets” and “engamement” to help parents and teachers understand the impact of digital technologies on children. He is the author of Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and Playing Smarter in a Digital World: A Guide to Choosing and Using Popular Video Games and Apps to Improve Executive Functioning in Children and Teens.