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Every parent knows they should regularly encourage their children to exercise. It’s known to help improve their self-esteem, it provides an opportunity to socialize, and encourages healthy growth and development in their young bodies.

But one often overlooked area is exercise’s impact on the mental health of young people —especially in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Exercise is ADHD Medication”

That’s why an article in The Atlantic used the above startling headline to report on a study published by researchers at the University of Illinois.

The researchers found that elementary school children who exercised regularly had larger brains, better memory and clearer thinking, more “cognitive control” (better reasoning and problem-solving), superior academic achievement, and a greater ability to deal with everyday tasks that require judgment, like crossing the street.1

It didn’t surprise the same researchers when another of their studies found the same types of benefits in ADHD children who began to exercise regularly.2

For that study, the researchers divided ADHD children, ages 7 to 9, into two groups: one group exercised regularly after school, and one group didn’t.1

After nine months, the exercisers had:

  • A 49% increase in “response inhibition” — the ability to control bad behavior, respond to feedback, and set and achieve goals.
  • A 43% increase in “cognitive flexibility” — the ability to face and respond to new and unexpected events and activities; to switch tasks; and to learn.
  • An 89% increase in “attentional resources” — the ability to focus and concentrate.

Exercise’s Effect on ADHD in Children

Dozens of other studies on ADHD and exercise have shown similar results.

Exercise has been shown to help children with ADHD by:

  • reducing hyperactivity
  • reducing inattention
  • reducing impulsivity
  • improving cooperation with parents, siblings, teachers and friends
  • improving motor skills, balance and strength, giving ADHD children a greater sense of physical competence and comfort
  • improving “executive function” — the ability to organize, make decisions, think ahead and delay short-term gratification for long-term results
  • boosting math and reading scores and other types of school performance
  • easing stress
  • decreasing intrusive, unwanted thoughts
  • lessening worry and anxiety
  • improving overall mood

Exercise works by triggering the release of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that regulate attention and mood.

It also boosts levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that protects and energizes brain cells.

Encourage Your ADHD Child to Exercise

I’m sure you already know that exercise helps your ADHD child focus and control behavior—the more exercise, the better.

In fact, you may have discovered that your child can only do his homework after he’s participated in afternoon sports. Or you may have found that if your child exercises regularly, he doesn’t need medication. Or if your child takes medication and exercises, he does much better than on medication alone.

I’ve seen the amazing effects of exercise on children with ADHD myself, after spending over 30 years treating children for the disorder.

For instance, many parents tell me that martial arts are wonderful for their ADHD child. Several studies even show that yoga can help with ADHD symptoms. Other studies on exercise and ADHD have used walking (including guided walks in a park, and treadmill walking), jogging, running and races, bicycling, swimming and aquatic exercise, skipping rope, dancing, weight-training, basketball, soccer and tag.

In other words, it’s not the type of exercise that’s matters—it’s the exercise itself.

And even a little goes a long way.    

In one study, for instance, just five minutes of running improved attention by 31% compared to a group of ADHD children who didn’t run.3 In fact, the ADHD kids became just as focused as a group of non-ADHD kids.

That’s the kind of “fitness” every ADHD parent loves to see.

What does all this point to? A simple rule to follow as a parent with an ADHD child:

Never limit exercise. Always maximize it.

And whatever you do don’t nag your child about exercise or criticize him for spending so much time in front of the TV or playing videogames. Instead, encourage your child to engage in sports and other physical activities that he enjoys.

For dozens of more ways on how to help your ADHD child, please see my award-winning book, Finally Focused, and become one of the thousands of parents who’ve benefited from my three decades of experience treating ADHD.

Yours in health,

James M. Greenblatt, MD
Founder, Medical Director, Psychiatry Redefined