How exercise could help children with ADHD concentrate in school

Do you have a child with ADHD who is struggling to concentrate in school? Find out how exercise could help them, and how you can work with the school to use it.

There is growing interest among academic researchers and the world of education into how different forms of physical exercise may influence the ways in which children learn, behave and achieve in school. And one particular focus of attention is how exercise could help children with ADHD to concentrate.

Can exercise really impact on performance in the classroom? If so, is any one type of exercise more effective than others?

The areas that researchers are focusing on are:

  • Executive functions – a group of inter-related mental processes that is responsible for supporting skills including reasoning, problem solving and planning.
  • Cognitive flexibility – the ability to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands.

What’s it like to live with ADHD as an adult? And how can ADHD be your superpower? Read how one woman discovered she had ADHD in her forties

What do we know about ADHD and motor interventions?

Currently it is estimated that there is a global prevalence of ADHD of around 6%, and that boys are diagnosed with this more often than girls. Ludgya et al (2018) stress that early interventions should be seen as a necessity to avoid longer-term negative impact of the condition.

Their research led them to consider whether physical exercise had potential as a complementary intervention for ADHD, drawing on the work of other researchers that had identified exercise-induced improvements on executive functioning and cognitive flexibility.

They concluded that physical exercise may possess ‘great potential’ as a complementary intervention for ADHD. Their overview of the current state of research suggests that exercise can exert an influence on skills as well as leading to fewer anxiety and depression symptoms.

They recognise that intensive research has taken place into the neurobiological aspects of ADHD, but the mechanisms by which exercise reduces the cognitive and behavioural impairments is less well developed.

There is an understanding that regular, daily, challenging exercise can contribute a complementary element in reducing impairments in executive functioning and control and behavioural deficits. The research does not however suggest that these are a substitute for pharmacological or behavioural therapies.

What type of exercise can help ADHD?

Many motor intervention programmes tend to focus on aerobic activity. However, as they tend to place a greater emphasis on the healthy aspects of physical activity, there is less focus on being mentally present and consciously aware of the ways in which the mind and body work together.

There’s now a growing research base to support the use of a wider range of movement interventions that combine different types of activities to address specific needs.

How yoga helps ADHD

Many yoga teachers would propose that their programmes develop flexibility of the mind as well as the body, and that there are correlations between improved focus, executive function and yoga practice (Gothe et al 2013). The practice of yoga has also found to be beneficial when combined with pharmacological interventions.

What distinguishes yoga is the mental focus, with links between improved focus and executive function. Some research has indicated that two 60-minute sessions of yoga over a 20-week period found improvements in ADHD related symptoms after six weeks.

How martial arts help ADHD

Tai Chi and martial arts programmes have also been proposed as potential interventions for ADHD, based on their structured approach to combining cognitive and motor approaches to increasing attention, focus and control.

How floor-based motor programmes help ADHD

Floor-based motor programmes that focus on developmental immaturities such as retained primitive reflexes have also shown some potential to improve ADHD traits of inattentiveness and hyperactivity.  These programmes have some evidence of improving these skills, but may benefit from being applied in conjunction with more physically challenging interventions.

How can moderate aerobic activity help ADHD?

Examples of moderate aerobic activity include jumping on a trampoline for five minutes, 15 minutes jumping and running on the spot, or table tennis training.

There is evidence to suggest that this type of exercise can produce improvements in cognitive flexibility and working memory. However researchers point out that there is insufficient data relating specifically to their impact on children with ADHD.

At the same time, there are suggestions that aerobic exercise sessions have the potential to improve inhibitory control temporarily when the activity takes place close to the cognitive task. The implication is that schools could benefit all their learners by integrating more physical activity in short bursts throughout the day.

Should schools integrate short bursts of physical activity?

According to Ludgya et al, 2018, “Exercise reduces the cognitive impairments and developmentally inappropriate behaviour in children and adolescents with ADHD… Children with ADHD should be encouraged to perform aerobic exercise for a temporary enhancement of capabilities in executive functioning”.

Regular exercise is also considered to contribute to long-term benefits for cognitive performance and behaviour in children and adolescents with ADHD.

The relationship between physical activity and educational performance offers the potential to inform new practices.

However, there is a concern that pseudoscience and neuromyths persist in relation to some commercial interventions that promote their versions of specific interventions to improve learning (Bailey 2018) that may lack credible evidence-based or peer-reviewed research.

What can parents and schools do to help with ADHD?

The positive emotion of enjoyment is a strong motivation to practise physical activity. Students of all ages with ADHD and associated difficulties may benefit from daily physical activities to prime classroom performance as long as they are happy to participate.

Here are some takeaway strategies to help parents and schools reap the potential benefits of exercise on ADHD:

  • Encourage daily exercise at 3+ intervals in the school day, that takes into account a variety of speed/duration/intensity.
  • Sessions can be 10-15 minutes and include a wide range but balanced selection of activities.
  • Devise a daily schedule that over the week that balances out a combination of aerobic/yoga/floor-based activities.
  • Children need to enjoy the activity they are doing, but it needs to be challenging to induce cognitive improvement.
  • It can be useful to include breathing exercises (often included in yoga programmes) as a part of daily routine and selecting a time when you think you, or your child/ student feel the greatest need to relax. This should ideally be at the same time every day.
  • Use a more intensive activity (appropriate to the individual) prior to important tests requiring high cognitive control or competitions requiring tactical planning.
  • Consider martial arts as a possible activity. There is some research to suggest that the traditional forms that combine mental and motor aspects can exert an influence on aspects of ADHD weaknesses.

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Mary Mountstephen MA (SEN) is a former nursery and primary head teacher, special needs coordinator and international presenter and consultant. She’s currently working on doctoral research at The University of Reading. 

If you would like a formal assessment, you can contact Mary through her website. Mary is happy to advise and support schools, families and homeschoolers.

Photo by MI PHAM