How exercise benefits kids with ADHD

Many years ago, I worked as a counselor at the city camp in North Miami Beach, Florida. Camp “No Mi Be” was attended by what seemed to be a countless number of very active, very inquisitive, and pretty-much-unstoppable 10-year-old boys.

We learned quickly that the best way to start the day was with running. Run, run, run. We’d make the kids run back and forth to the fence, or run around the building, or whatever we could come up with. We’d challenge them to race us—it turned out that 16 year old legs, even on a non-athletic type like me, were long enough to beat any 10 year old. And it turned out that 10-year-old-boys, having lost races to their counselor 4 weeks in a row, would be more than happy to try again the next day.

Good times.

On those unfortunate rainy days, we’d run ‘em anyway. But on really really rainy days with lightning and hail, the wimp camp director would make us keep our monsters indoors all day. Those days were called “nightmares.” We counselors would end up hiding under desks.

So, a 2012 study looked at 20 kids with ADHD and 20 matched controls to see how they did on tests of attention and cognitive functioning after a twenty minute period of exercise, versus after a twenty minute period of sitting around. Surprise—both groups performed better on arithmetic and reading after exercise. The ADHD kids also showed improvements in their ability to regulate their behavior, with improved self-control after exercise.

Not a huge study—but it confirms what experienced teachers and 16-year-old camp counselors know. Kids need exercise to settle their minds and get to work.

The AAP has weighed in on this, too. Recess at school is crucial and necessary, and it should be part of every school curriculum. Recess should not be withheld as a punishment for misbehavior or poor grades.

Kids of all ages, whether they have ADHD or not, need time for active play. I don’t think anyone is saying that exercise can “cure” ADHD, but it does seem to be one simple, safe intervention that ought to be part of every child’s day.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.

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