Research: Physical Exercise May Improve ADHD



Physical movement can improve mental focus, memory, and cognitive flexibility, which new research has discovered is critical to students’ academic performance. There are positive outcomes for kids who have used a specialized video game that “reinforces top-down cognitive modulation” which then enhances cognitive modulation, but now a remedy for ADHD has been found to be good, old, physical activity, according to James Hamblin of The Atlantic.

The findings, according to University of Illinois professor Charles Hillman and colleagues, “demonstrate a causal effect of a physical program on executive control, and provide support for physical activity for improving childhood cognition and brain health.”

Executive control has to do with inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Earlier this month research came out with findings that showed that a 12-week exercise program improved students’ math and reading test scores, especially in those who has signs of ADHD. Of course, says Hillman, the pandemic of physical inactivity is a serious threat to global health, and needs to be addressed beyond the benefits it seems to have on learning for children with ADHD.

In a 2012 TED talk, John Ratey, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, argued that physical exercise “is really for our brains.” He likened it to taking “a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin.”

Jessica Dollin, reporting for Yahoo! News, says that children four to 17, who took medications for ADHD, increased from 4.8% to 6.1% between 2007 and 2011, according to the CDC. Exercise programs for children, however, are underfunded and are decreasing in priority. Dr. Lawrence Diller, author of Running on Ritalin, believes the big drug companies are supportive of this growth in numbers since more children diagnosed with ADHD means more money in corporate coffers.

“The vast majority of kids being treated for ADHD are amendable with environmental influence, but a great bulk of those children wind up on medicine,” Diller said.

Education reform over the past decade has highlighted the importance of basic academics and has focused on minority and low-income students. Greg Toppo of USA Today writes about a study which came from researchers at Yale, New York University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison finding that higher-income families are more apt to trust their own judgment about prescription decisions. The study went on to explain that the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, schools got very serious about teaching math and reading.

“As schools become more academic, as a consequence we’re seeing an increase in school-based stimulant use,” said Marissa King, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “Kids are actually just trying to manage a much broader shift in the way the school day is structured.”

It was also found that higher-income students had higher rates of medication usage. Andrew Adesman, a developmental pediatrician at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, said that this might be because of the difficulty low-income families have paying for the medication. Adesman adds that there were not enough details in the study about the types of diagnoses involved, and the type and degree of the disorder has a notable impact on whether a child should take the medication year-round or not. He said that younger children often have not only inattentiveness, but also a hyperactivity and impulsivity component that makes taking the medication a social issue, not just an academic problem.

Some might believe that higher-income families are attempting to give their children an academic advantage by medicating them only during the school year. Rather, says Marissa King, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, students are under pressure to have much more sustained attention.

In an Australian study, it was found that ADHD can begin affecting students’ academic performance and social skills as early as in second grade, says Dennis Thompson writing for the Detroit Free Press. Six to eight year-old children who tested and scored a high level of ADHD symptoms were more likely to get lower grades and had a harder time fitting in with other children when compared to children who did not have ADHD. Also, kids with ADHD had a greater probability of having anxiety, depression, and autism, according to the study.

Researchers said that 80% of young children with ADHD symptoms have not been diagnosed with the disorder, which Dr. David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, found “striking”.

“For this reason, I would fully agree with the authors’ conclusion that the results of the study underscore the need for earlier recognition and treatment of ADHD in young children,” Fassler said.

10 20, 2014