Physical exercise helps children with ADHD pay attention

Short bursts of intense exercise help children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) focus on attentional tasks, which bodes well for their academic success. This finding comes courtesy of researchers from the Technology Research Centre and Biomedical Engineering Centre in São Paulo, Brazil (PLOS ONE, 24 March 2015).

It is well known that children with ADHD face many learning and focus challenges. Their condition is characterized by “inattention, restlessness (hyperactivity) and impulsivity,” behaviors which counteract the concentration and memory functions required for long-term success in school.

Previous research has demonstrated the connection between exercise’s release of neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—and their overlapping influence on memory and learning systems. This study corroborates the excitement-inducing and stress-reducing effects of these chemicals, but most notably quantifies the effects of exercise on ADHD symptoms specific to attentional awareness.

Study author Alessandro P. Silva and colleagues tested 28 volunteers (ages 10 to 16), half of whom have ADHD, in a two-part procedure to measure awareness after exercise. Participants were placed into two groups of 14, each evenly divided between ADHD children and those without the condition. One group of 14 ran an intense 5-minute relay race (65% – 85% max heart rate), rested shortly, and then played a video game that required attentional focus to complete. The control group of 14 skipped the exercise, instead launching straight into the attentional task.

Results showed an increase in focus and attention, with performance rated by how quickly participants finished video game challenges. Children with ADHD who exercised before the awareness trial performed 30.52% better at their attentional tasks than the non-exercise ADHD children. ADHD exercisers further outperformed the non-ADHD exercise group by 40.36%. Controls were set in place for video game skill and academic performance across all participants.

Likewise intriguing were how various in-game tasks reflected the ADHD children’s attentional strengths. Across 18 challenges, 9 took place in an outside game environment, encouraging “exploratory” problem solving, a skill intimately linked to ADHD. The other 9 happened in an underground area where success demanded attentional awareness of a minefield.

Specific scores for the awareness tasks were slightly in favor of the non-ADHD children. The authors, however, emphasize the overall significance of the total scores, stating “children with ADHD symptoms may have equivalent concentration to individuals without the disorder after physical exertion.”

They also acknowledge further research is needed to investigate whether or not intense exercise impairs the attention and focus of non-ADHD children. (In the current study, 42% of non-exercising, non-ADHD children performed better than non-ADHD exercisers.)

This study is significant as one of the first to quantify the effects exercise has on ADHD children’s concentration and attention spans. It aligns with previous findings that attention and impulse control improve “almost immediately” after a child with ADHD exercises. And it supports results that label neurotransmitter release during exercise as overlapping triggers for learning and memory function. This itself suggests that exercise “normalizes” the minds of ADHD children to comparable non-ADHD attentional levels.

Most importantly, it may pave the way for more nuanced ADHD interventions, ones that incorporate physical activity alongside or in place of medication and behavioral treatments. These results show that minimal physical exercise, chemically and emotionally, help children with ADHD home in on tasks and narrow their focus.

These results are also encouraging for students with ADHD who may need extra help paying attention to and finishing their work, and to the parents and teachers who support their development.