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Increasing Physical Movement Reduces Symptoms of ADHD

Physical activity improves cognitive control for children with ADHD.

This post is in response to
Motor Activity Improves Working Memory in Children with ADHD
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Researchers from the UC Davis MIND Institute at the University of California have identified that physical movement may improve cognitive control and the ability to focus attention for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

These research findings should come as no surprise. Humans have evolved for millennia with physical activity as a key component of our survival, as well as, to maintain a sound mind in a sound body. Throughout the ages, children have grown up with intense physical activity as an integral part of their childhood in the form of both work and play.

Until the industrial revolution, children spent the majority of their waking hours laboring physically or playing out-of-doors. How could a young mind and body—that has evolved for eons to move regularly—possibly adapt to the amount of sitting that children do today?

In the digital age of the 21st century, increased screen time and the lack of physical movement are causing our bodies and minds to short circuit. In my opinion, the epidemic of ADHD diagnoses and the over-prescription of pharmaceuticals tailored to help children "Sit still and concentrate!" are directly linked to a lack of daily physical activity.

Forcing Children with ADHD to Sit Still May Backfire

The June 2015 study, "A Trial-by-Trial Analysis Reveals More Intense Physical Activity Is Associated with Better Cognitive Control Performance in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder," was published online in the journal Child Neuropsychology.

These new findings corroborate the research of Mark Rapport, head of the Children's Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida. In April 2015, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post about Rapport's research titled, "Motor Activity Improves Working Memory in Children with ADHD."

For the new UC Davis study, researchers led by senior author Julie Schweitzer, professor of psychiatry and director of the UC Davis ADHD Program, recruited 26 children with validated ADHD diagnoses and 18 without ADHD symptoms to examine their patterns of physical activity and movement.

The researchers were able to correlate the intensity and frequency of movement with higher scores on cognitively demanding tasks requiring focused attention. Study participants with ADHD exhibited substantially better cognitive performance the more they moved their bodies.

This UC Davis MIND Institute study is the first to assess the relationship between physical activity and task performance on a trial-by-trial basis in children with ADHD. In a press release, Julie Schweitzer described the results of the study saying,

It turns out that physical movement during cognitive tasks may be a good thing for them. Parents and teachers shouldn't try to keep them still. Let them move while they are doing their work or other challenging cognitive tasks. It may be that the hyperactivity we see in ADHD may actually be beneficial at times. Perhaps the movement increases their arousal level, which leads to better attention.

For the experiment, the movements of each participant were measured using a device that was affixed to the ankle and gauged levels of activity while completing a "flanker test," which tests someone's ability to focus attention and ignore distractions. Scores on the flanker test improved significantly when participants with ADHD were moving.

Conclusion: Physical Activity Might Improve Test Scores for ADHD Students

Forcing children to sit still in an attempt to prep them for the Common Core standards and No Child Left Behind may backfire. The emphasis on standardized testing combined with increased sedentarism might be creating a double whammy that sabotages the odds of a child with ADHD succeeding in school.

In a press release, Arthur Hartanto, a study coordinator with the UC Davis ADHD Program and the study's first author concluded,

Maybe teachers shouldn't punish kids for movement, and should allow them to fidget as long as it doesn't disturb the rest of the class . . . they should seek activities that are not disruptive that allow their students with ADHD to use movement, because it assists them with thinking.

Reducing the prevalence of ADHD symptoms by encouraging regular physical activity and movement—both in and out of the classroom—should become a top priority for parents, teachers, and policy makers.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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