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Motor Activity Improves Working Memory in Children with ADHD

Forcing children with ADHD to "Sit still and concentrate!" can backfire.

Source: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

Have you been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Do you have a child or loved one with ADHD? I’m sure that I would have been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, if I hadn’t been born in a decade before the diagnosis existed.

Like most young boys, I had trouble sitting still and was constantly in motion. Luckily for my working memory and executive function, I grew up during a pre-ADHD diagnosis time in the 1970s. My parents took a hands-off approach and let me run wild.

A new study has found that motor activities such as foot-tapping, leg-swinging and chair-scooting—which are commonly observed in children with ADHD—are actually directly linked to how they remember information and work out complex cognitive tasks.

The April 2015 study, “Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?” was published in the online Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

The new study suggests that a majority of students with ADHD could perform better on classroom work, tests, and homework if they were allowed to sit on activity balls or ride exercise bikes while learning.

Louisa May Alcott has eloquently described her hyperactive childhood in the 1800s and her love of running wild. I wonder if she would have been diagnosed with ADHD and forced to sit still in our modern society? Louisa May Alcott described her love of physical activity saying:

Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.

No boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy. . . My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild.

Mark Rapport, head of the Children's Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida and an author of the recent ADHD study, said in a press release:

The typical interventions target reducing hyperactivity. It's exactly the opposite of what we should be doing for a majority of children with ADHD. The message isn't 'Let them run around the room,' but you need to be able to facilitate their movement so they can maintain the level of alertness necessary for cognitive activities.

The researchers found that when frustrated parents and teachers wrestle with fidgety children, who have been diagnosed with ADHD, and try to force them to “Sit still and concentrate!” they may actually be impeding the child's ability to focus and learn.

This research has exciting implications for new ways that parents and teachers can work with ADHD children, especially considering the ever-increasing emphasis on how well students perform on standardized tests.

Rapport's previous research found that the excessive movement and motor activity that is a trademark of hyperactive children—which has traditionally been considered to be omnipresent throughout the day—is actually only apparent when an ADHD child needs to use the brain's executive brain functions, especially their working memory.

This new study suggests that motor activity and movement actually serve an important learning purpose for chidren with ADHD. "What we've found is that when they're moving the most, the majority of them perform better," Rapport said. "They have to move to maintain alertness."

Source: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

Is the ADHD Diagnosis "Epidemic" Driven by Pharmaceutical Companies?

According to the CDC, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder in American children. Unfortunately, it is often misdiagnosed. There are no real physiological markers to diagnose ADHD and doctors generally diagnose the disorder simply by observing a patient's behavior or discussing possible symptoms with the patient or parents.

An incorrect evaluation and ADHD diagnosis can lead to overmedication of drugs such as Ritalin (methylphenidate). There has been conjecture that pharmaceutical companies are out to profit by pushing ADHD diagnoses and prescriptions.

I’ve written two Psychology Today blog posts about this topic, “Are Pharmaceuticals the Answer for Treating ADHD?” and “One More Reason to Unplug Your Television.”

Conclusion: How Can We Reduce the Modern Day "Epidemic" of ADHD?

Living in a digital age has created the most sedentary existence our species has ever experienced. We haven't evolved to spend most of our daily lives sitting still and interacting with a two-dimensional screen.

It seems inevitable that spending most of the day sitting would cause the human mind, body, and brain to short-circuit. Regular physical activity is paramount for the healthy development and maintenance of our bodies, brains, and minds at every stage of life.

I’ve written extensively about a potential link between the cerebellum, physical activity, motor skills, and academic achievement in previous Psychology Today blog posts.

It seems to me, there may be a cerebellar link to the most recent findings that motor activity improves working memory in children with ADHD—although this was not a part of the Children's Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida study.

I do not endorse any specific learning programs, but there is a program called DORE which has created a unique approach for overcoming learning disabilities based on motor activities that seems to corroborate some of the most recent findings from the University of Central Florida. Below is a brief YouTube cartoon that illustrates how DORE uses motor activities to improve reading and writing abilities.

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

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