Why your child needs exercise for ADHD symptom management
If you want to live a healthy lifestyle and keep the weight off, you have to exercise. We all know that exercise is good for the waistline, but it’s significantly good for the brain as well. This is because: exercise results in the growth of new nerve cells, increases in the levels of several different neurotransmitters and vascular (new blood vessel) adaptations.
For people living with ADHD, the benefit of regular exercise is even more profound. There is growing research that suggests that moderate to intense exercise triggers the same neurotransmitters (dopamine and norepinephrine) and brain structures as prescription ADHD medications, resulting in:
improved attention control, and
enhanced executive functioning.
The research suggests that children with ADHD could possibly benefit more from physical exercise than neurotypical children given that they have more room to improve.
How it benefits
The brain’s attention system is made up of an interconnected web of neurons spread throughout various areas of the brain, controlling arousal, motivation, reward, executive function and movement. These attention circuits are regulated by neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine, which send messages from one part of the system to another. For ADHD-diagnosed people, the communication within their attention system is patchy and disconnected. ADHD medication aims to fill these gaps, decreasing symptoms. It’s also exactly what exercise does.
One meta-analysis established that exercise has a significant dose-response effect on gross and fine motor skills and executive function in ADHD-diagnosed children. Fidgetiness, another common symptom, has been linked to an overactive cerebellum. Elevated dopamine and norepinephrine bring this area back in balance – usually with ADHD medication. Complex exercise does the same thing. Exercise has also been reported to improve anxiety and depression-related behavior, social problems and self-esteem in children with ADHD.
Another meta-analysis noted that exercise may increase vagal nerve stimulation, neuroplasticity and blood flow to the brain.
Developing a strategy
The effects of exercise could be cumulative – research suggests that the longer your child exercises over time, the more the brain will adapt to these changes. When starting an exercise program, consider:
Staying power - Find a sport or do an activity that your child is interested in, and which they enjoy. Let your child do the activity with a partner – either with you, as a parent, or with a sibling or friend; this encourages consistency.
Exercise which requires technical movements are especially good for children with ADHD, e.g. any martial arts, ballet, ice skating, gymnastics, rock climbing, mountain biking or skateboarding. According to Dr John Ratey, ADHD expert and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, “The technical movements inherent in any of these activities activate a vast array of brain areas that control balance, timing, Reviewed by : Latiefa Toffie 14/02/2022 Yolanda Giwu : 10/02/2022 sequencing, evaluation consequences, switching, error correction, fine motor adjustments, inhibition and of course intense focus and concentration.”
Exercise with a social component, such as team sports, is also beneficial. It also teaches your child a host of life skills such as teamwork, time management, sportsmanship and a sense of community.
Exercises should be done outdoors, if possible. Two studies have suggested that physical activity done in nature reduces ADHD symptoms significantly more than activities done in other settings.
Both cardiovascular (like jogging, cycling, and swimming) and non-cardiovascular exercise like (strength training, tai chi, and yoga) have helpful effects.
Research has observed that ADHD-diagnosed children are “less likely to participate in vigorous physical activity and organized sports relative to children without ADHD,” so motivation and keeping your child motivated is fundamental to establishing a regular exercise programme.
The “treatment dose”
A general guideline is to aim for at least one 30- to 40-minute activity a day, four or five days a week. Ensure that the exercise your child gets is moderately intense, i.e. their heart rate goes up, their breathing gets harder and faster, they sweat, and their muscles feel tired.
Although the spike in dopamine and norepinephrine post-exercise has yet to be quantified, anecdotal evidence suggests 60 to 90 minutes of calm after a session. If your child is on medication and gets regular exercise, speak to your doctor about the best time for your child to have their medication in order to benefit from exercise as a treatment approach; some doctors may suggest that kids on medication take their medication when the effects of exercise are wearing off.
Indications with other ADHD treatment
Exercise is a complementary tool for children and adolescents living with ADHD to manage their symptoms along with medication, therapy, and nutrition. Currently, there is insufficient evidence for exercise as a standalone treatment.