On ADHD and Exercise

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When I was 12 or 13, an older girl at my school taught me to run.

Like any kid, I was familiar with the concept of moving my feet faster when being chased, but she taught me to run with intent, to pick up my knees and let my body slope on uphills, to relax on the downhills, to keep my elbows light and my shoulders back.

Like the givers of most priceless gift, she never got a proper thanks. Thinking of it now, I’m touched and amazed a 15-year-old took the time to hang out with a chubby, socially awkward new kid.

Exercise is more than just a ‘good to have’ — especially for students who struggle. Depression, anxiety, body image issues and low self-esteem are just a few of the struggles running has helped me manage.

It didn’t surprise me, then, when I started reading about the effect of exercise on attention–deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). My assumption was that ADHD, like so many other physical and mental health challenges, would respond positively to exercise.

Research overwhelmingly bears this out.

Studies on ADHD and Exercise

Silva et al. (2015), who found that “groups of volunteers with ADHD who performed exercise (GE-EF) showed improved performance for the tasks that require attention with a difference of 30.52% compared with the volunteers with ADHD who did not perform the exercise (GE). The (GE-EF) group showed similar performance (2.5% difference) with the volunteers in the (GC) group who have no ADHD symptoms and did not exercise. This study shows that intense exercise can improve the attention of children with ADHD and may help their school performance.”

Haffner et al. (2006) studied yoga as a treatment for children with ADHD: “All children showed sizable reductions in symptoms over time, and at the end of the study, the group means for the ADHD scales did not differ significantly from those for a representative control group.”

Systematic literature reviews

Ng et al. (2017) conducted a review of 30 studies of exercise and ADHD found, “Both short-term and long-term studies support the clinical benefits of physical activity for individuals with ADHD. Cognitive, behavioural and physical symptoms of ADHD were alleviated in most instances… Physical activity, in particular moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise, is a beneficial and well-tolerated intervention for children and adolescents with ADHD.”

Den Heijer et al. (2017) reviewed 29 studies and reported, “the reviewed studies describe acute as well as chronic beneficial effects of cardio exercise on a wide variety of cognitive and behavioral functions in children with ADHD.” For example: “Sibley and Etnier (2003) observed acute as well as chronic effects of various cardio and non-cardio exercises on perceptual skills, intelligence, academic achievement, developmental level and performance on verbal and mathematic tests in children and adolescents (4–18 years). Furthermore, improvements of executive functions of children have been demonstrated following cardio exercise (Best 2010).”

Furthermore, a literature review of 91 studies (Suchert, Hanewinkel, Isensee, 2015) found, “strong evidence that high levels of screen time were associated with more hyperactivity/inattention problems”.

Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

How to Promote Active Education

This should be of particular concern to those of us educators who teach online. For all the benefits and conveniences remote learning offers, we should bear in mind the potential negative effects.

Is it ever fair to ask a child to sit still for six to eight hours a day? No.

But at least in physical schools there are halls to run in, playgrounds, a gym, a playing field. Online schooling asks a lot of kids, in terms of attention, and paradoxically the screen we rely on might make ADHD symptoms worse.

As online teachers, we have a limited influence on students’ activities once they log out of our classroom. This means we need to work with parents and make the most of online opportunities to support student activity. Here’s how that might look:

1. Inform and engage parents

All students benefit from physical activity, so the message should go to all parents. Teachers and administrators can communicate the benefits of sports and exercise through routine conversations, newsletters, blog posts, etc.

Educators should ask what sports students do and offer flexibility for training and competitions. If a kid has to miss class for a clinic, or to travel to a match, we should support that. It is a simple, practical way to commit to holistic wellness and development.

2. Make ‘movement moments’

There are plenty of exercises that can be done in front of a computer. Take a minute at the beginning or end of class to lead students in a yoga pose, do a dozen star jumps (jumping jacks, to my Stateside friends), throw a few jabs or march in place. The kids might think it’s weird at first, but they’re bound to appreciate the chance to bounce around.

3. Talk about exercise and mind-body wellness

Share your positive experiences with exercise (and if you don’t have any, please make time to cultivate some). With younger students you can make straightforward recommendations like, If you’re having trouble concentrating, try running up and down the garden really fast 10 times then go back to your homework. Older students will be able to understand and discuss in greater depth the benefits of exercise and strategize about how to include it in their daily routines.

4. Create opportunities for student sharing and leadership

Be a good example, but don’t hog the floor. Invite students who play sports to give presentations about them, or share their experiences of learning a new physical skill. Ask for volunteers to lead in-class ‘movement minutes’. Encourage students to keep exercise diaries or step counts — you could even make a chart where they can post their weekly totals!

5. Be positive, not preachy

Tone matters. Exercise can easily feel like another demand to over-taxed students. Kids with ADHD are likely more impulsive, more emotional, less able to maintain healthy routines; adding another weight to their shoulders isn’t a kindness, so don’t preach. Model positive wellness behaviors; verbally support students; encourage parents to prioritize physical activity; praise success; praise mistakes. When exercise is a low-risk, fun, habitual activity we all win.

How do you encourage kids to stay active? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke