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Can Walking to School Cure ADHD?

Surprising new research indicates that the answer is “yes.”

October is “International Walk to School Month,” now in its thirteenth year. Interestingly, a new research study from Britain, involving 2,500 children ages 7 and 8, has concluded that walking to school can help children concentrate better and therefore possibly reduce the need for a child to take ADHD medication.

Dr. William Bird, founder of the company that conducted the study, suggested three reasons why walking to school may boost a child's academic performance. First, physical activity improves brain elasticity, which allows children to learn more easily. Second, there is evidence that contact with the natural environment has a calming effect on children. And third, exercise also releases endorphins (neurotransmitters that produce a feeling of well being), which makes children feel more relaxed.

Dr. Bird also pointed out that research done in the United States, in which children with ADHD

were encouraged to play outside, found that outdoor play has a significant calming effect on kids, to the point where an ADHD child can be "almost back to normal.”

The study's conclusion is not without controversy. Clinical psychologist and author Oliver James, for example, does not agree with the results. In his view, walking to school is unlikely to have any significant impact on children with ADHD. He said: “I’m all in favour of children walking to school, but ADHD is best understood as a form of anxious attachment, not something caused by lack of exercise.” Dr. James believes that bombarding children with plenty of parental attention can make them feel more securely attached, and thereby help them to calm down.

On the basis of my clinical experience, I know that physical exercise of any kind can help prevent or reduce ADHD symptoms in children (see my recent blog 10 Tips to Head Off ADHD). But physical exercise by itself may not be sufficient to ward off inattentiveness or over-activity in every child. I agree with Dr. James that the parenting environment plays a significant role in ADHD. Creating a feeling of secure attachment in the child is certainly part of the story; but so is consistent discipline and a calm, structured home environment.

Children who took part in the British study also reported additional benefits. Walking to school enabled them to spend more time with their friends and even to make new friends. Three in ten

teachers, interviewed by researchers, saw evidence that walking helped children learn more.

The real significance of this study, in my own view, lies in the fact that independent researchers are beginning to shift their focus to something other than psychoactive drugs to help children with ADHD. For many decades, pharmaceutical companies have sponsered most, if not all, research on the treatment of ADHD. By publishing positive results that make their drugs look good and withholding negative results, drug companies have convinced both the press and the public that ADHD is a biologically-based disease that must be treated with medication, even though there is not a shred of scientific evidence for this view.

Not surprisingly, the focus of the numerous Pharma-funded studies has been exclusively on drug therapy for ADHD, rather than on the healing effects of making changes in children's daily lives—like adding more physical exercise, providing healthier diets, or making changes in parenting. Hopefully, future research will move in a different direction and, like the British study, focus on psycho-social and lifestyle interventions for over active and inattentive children, instead of merely on the benefits of psychiatric medications.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

Marilyn Wedge is the author of Pills are not for Preschoolers: A Drug-free Approach for Troubled Kids.

Her latest book on the ADHD epidemic inthe United States is A Disease Called Childhood.