Exercise and ADHD

Posted by Brainspring on 1st Oct 2014

Hi everyone,

Just by chance, I read these 3 articles on the same day and decided that must have been a sign that I needed to talk about them in a blog post.  The articles were ADHD Can Hamper School Performance as Early as 2nd Grade, Study Says, Why Recess is Non-Negotiable for ADHD Kids, and An hour of after-school exercise linked to better cognitive functioning.

I’ve been thinking about these articles for a few days now, and I haven’t been able to come up with a perfect solution, probably because there isn’t one.  I’m hoping that you will share some of your thoughts and ideas after reading this post and the articles.  We may not have the answer right away, but starting a discussion is a good step forward.



ADHD Can Hamper School Performance as Early as 2nd Grade

According to the study, “Children between 6 and 8 years old who were tested and scored high for ADHD symptoms were more likely to get lower grades in elementary school and have trouble fitting in with other kids, compared with children without ADHD.´ By 2nd grade, compared to their peers, those students were more likely to be below level in reading and math, and have social problems:  “33 percent of kids with ADHD were reading below average and 46 percent had math skills below average. For non-ADHD kids, only about 6 percent were reading below average and nearly 15 percent had below-average math skills, the researchers found.”  Starting off at such a disadvantage makes it less likely that these students will be able to catch up to their peers.  Based on these findings, the report calls for more to be done for early identification and treatment of children with ADHD.

For me this is strikingly similar to the situation for students with dyslexia.  In fact, 60%-70% of students with ADHD also have dyslexia.  According to the CDC, 13.5% of boys are diagnosed with ADHD, as well as 5.4% of girls.  With such a large percent of the school population possibly suffering from ADHD, it’s imperative that we think of ways to make classrooms and the school environment better suited for these students’ needs.  The next 2 articles recommend incorporating exercise and group play into students’ daily lives.



Why Recess is Non-Negotiable for ADHD Kids

This next study is especially interesting because it shows exercise improves classroom outcomes for students with and without ADHD.  Students were split into 2 groups: one group received about 30 minutes of exercise before school, while the other group received 30 minutes of a sedentary activity.  Throughout the day, parents and teachers then rated the students on a scale of ADHD criteria.  The behavior and attentiveness of the students who got the exercise greatly improved:  “Children with and without ADHD showed across-the-board improvement after exercising — but the kids with ADHD took significantly greater strides. The biggest jumps were seen in the children’s ability to focus and in their moods, both in school and at home. Parents also reported less oppositional behavior on the days their children exercised.”

Exercise appears to have a significant effect on controlling the symptoms of ADHD.  “We must think of exercise as an essential component of treatment,” says Dr. Ned Hallowell. “If your child has ADD, make sure his school doesn’t discipline him by keeping him inside during recess or forcing him to sit in detention.”



An hour of after-school exercise linked to better cognitive functioning

Exercise helps students physically, cognitively and socially.

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that children and adolescents aged 6-17 years engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Similar to the study in the previous article, students in this study were divided into 2 groups: one enrolled in an after-school program focused on physical activity, and the other kept as a control.  The findings were striking because they showed more than the expected improvement in physical fitness: “the children in the exercise group demonstrated improvements in “attentional inhibition” – the ability to block out distractions and focus on tasks – compared with the control group. They also had better “cognitive flexibility,” meaning they could move between intellectual tasks without compromising accuracy and speed.”

Furthermore, one researcher suggests that part of the reason for such a cognitive improvement may be the social interaction fostered by participation in the program.  “The fact is that kids are social beings; they perform physical activity in a social environment,” he says. “A big reason why kids participate in a structured sports environment is because they find it fun and they make new friends. And this intervention was designed to meet those needs as well.”


Take Away

Since we realize the impact ADHD can have on students academically and socially, we need to find ways to help these students be more successful in the classroom.  Exercise is one intervention that can help all our students perform better.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I don’t have the perfect answer.  I do have some ideas that might serve as a starting point though.

Stress the importance of exercise to parents.  Suggest they get their student involved in an after-school team and offer resources.

Teach students the rules to team games they can play at recess, like soccer or kickball.

Organize a team game during recess once a week for any students who want to participate.

Ask your school to think about adding physical activities into before- and after-school child care programs.

Suggest your school adopt a program like FITKids from the third article.

Take students outside for short activity breaks during the day.  Not just for free time, but for an organized physical activity.  You can even add in classroom skills by playing a game like “What Time is it Mr. Fox” or “Freeze Tag”( use content by  requiring students to do a task to become unfrozen, like say a word that starts with the /t/ sound or name a state and its capitol). 


I hope you’ll share your ideas as well.

How important do you think exercise and team participation are for students’ success in the classroom?

Do you notice improvement in your students’ or children’s learning and attitude when they get a good amount of exercise?

What ways do you incorporate physical activity into your students’ day?

What are the difficulties of adding more exercise into the day?

How much recess time do your students get during the day?

How often do your students get gym time?  What kinds of activities do they play?

Are many of your students involved in after-school sports?


Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
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