Research shows exercise helps with ADHD

Drawing by Cécile Graat,

In yet another case of a scientific study to prove what should be obvious, researchers now report that children with ADHD are able to focus better after 20 minutes of exercise.

Unfortunately, given our medication-obsessed society, this research is also very much needed.  According to the press release, it is also the first study to investigate and report that impact of exercise on attention focus ability. The research was easy enough to do — the researchers simply compared performance of kids who exercised by walking briskly on a treadmill with a comparison group who were asked to sit and read quietly for 20 minutes. Then the kids were given a short reading and math quiz, and also played a computer game requiring focused attention.

The kids who exercised did better.   

The research was led by Dr. Matthew Pontifex, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University.  He says, “This provides some very early evidence that exercise might be a tool in our nonpharmaceutical treatment of ADHD. Maybe our first course of action that we would recommend to developmental psychologists would be to increase children’s physical activity.”

Here are the key points from the study:

In the study, Pontifex and colleagues asked 40 children aged 8 to 10, half of whom had ADHD, to spend 20 minutes either walking briskly on a treadmill or reading while seated. The children then took a brief reading comprehension and math exam similar to longer standardized tests. They also played a simple computer game in which they had to ignore visual stimuli to quickly determine which direction a cartoon fish was swimming.

The results showed all of the children performed better on both tests after exercising. In the computer game, those with ADHD also were better able to slow down after making an error to avoid repeat mistakes – a particular challenge for those with the disorder.

Pontifex said the findings support calls for more physical activity during the school day. Other researchers have found that children with ADHD are less likely to be physically active or play organized sports. Meanwhile, many schools have cut recess and physical education programs in response to shrinking budgets.

Dr. Pontifex added that his research goal was to provide research evidence support school physical education programs.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, physical fitness was a big deal, implemented by President Kennedy. Somehow the idea of exercise and physical fitness was tied up with notions of patriotism, and organized exercise was a regular part of our school day. Even if that hadn’t been the case, most kids walked or rode their bikes to school, and after school kids were typically sent outdoors to play until sundown.

The label ADHD hadn’t yet been invented.

More information:

Research Citation:

Matthew B. Pontifex, Brian J. Saliba, Lauren B. Raine, Daniel L. Picchietti, Charles H. Hillman. Exercise Improves Behavioral, Neurocognitive, and Scholastic Performance in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Pediatrics, available online October 17, 2012.