Can Physical Activity Alleviate Symptoms for Kids with ADHD?

ADHD Support & Awareness

ADHD, or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurological condition marked by heightened hyperactivity, inattentiveness and/or impulsiveness. While all children can exhibit these characteristics sometimes, children with ADHD experience them more constantly and to the detriment of academic and social objectives and to biological functions like sleeping and eating.

Parents have long shared, anecdotally, the importance of physical exercise to a child’s ability to be “calm.” We’ve likely all experienced the vibrating energy of any young kid who’s been pent up on a rainy day or forced to sit too long at a family function.

As research into ADHD progresses, many parents and advocates wonder: Can physical activity provide a treatment component to accompany or replace prescribed medication and improve social and academic outcomes for kids living with ADHD? The research is promising!

Exercise Improves Learning for All Children

Could more physical activity before, during and after school help children focus better on academic tasks? This has been a question many studies have endeavoured to answer.

A 2014 study of over two hundred 7-9 year olds demonstrated that daily physical activity, even when delivered in the “after school” time, improved cognition and executive function in testing environments over a period of nine months.

We know that the effects of exercise on the body are cumulative, and they are no doubt so for the brain as well. Regular physical activity can improve cognition over time even when not delivered as movement breaks during the school day. Biking or walking to and from school when possible, encouraging involvement in extracurricular sports and activities, and creating a culture of physical activity in your home are all worthy endeavours for your child’s physical health and academic potential.

Physical Activity Uniquely Benefits Kids with ADHD

Kids with ADHD face challenges at school unlike other children, but home can sometimes be just as stressful. For busy parents, dealing with the challenges of ADHD means finding strategies and modifications to  family routines to help manage outbursts, moodiness and inattentiveness. After all, the same lack of focus that makes a multi-step math problem complicated for a child with ADHD can present a challenge to family routines, chores and outings. A 2015 study showed promising at-home improvement in moodiness and inattention with just a 30-minute period of physical activity per day, before school.

In the school environment, parents and educators have long advocated that children with ADHD be enabled to “fidget” and move during tasks requiring focus. In fact, the evidence is mounting that movement during cognitive tasks is essential to children with ADHD. Dr. Mark Rapport has led multiple studies and concludes: “What we’ve found is that when [children with ADHD are] moving the most, the majority of them perform better. They have to move to maintain alertness.” Interestingly, children without ADHD were shown to perform worse during cognitive tasks while fidgeting. It seems fidgeting is a biological imperative to improve alertness in children with ADHD, who tend to be under-aroused by mental tasks, Rapport suggests.

Could regular activity outside of school promote increased alertness also? It seems the answer is a resounding “yes!” One controlled study of more than 80 children with ADHD demonstrated improved attention, motor skills and classroom behaviour with just 40-50 minutes of structured activity, as compared with students who received no additional exercise. A 2015 review of eight controlled trials found that regardless of exact format, physical activity is a promising treatment for kids with ADHD: “The main cumulative evidence indicates that short-term aerobic exercise, based on several aerobic intervention formats, seems to be effective for mitigating symptoms such as attention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, anxiety, executive function and social disorders in children with ADHD.”

Physical Activity Should Not Replace Medication for Kids with ADHD 

Study authors have been careful to define the limits of physical activity as an ADHD treatment. While parents who worry about the effects of medication might be encouraged by the research, exercise alone isn’t believed by many to be a sufficient treatment plan for ADHD.

Researcher Dr. Betsy Hoza was clear in a 2016 review of the science so far: “The… evidence supports physical activity as an adjunctive treatment for ADHD at this time, but the body and sophistication of the research to date is insufficient at present to support physical activity as a stand-alone treatment.” Experts suggest that the best course of action for children with ADHD remains a combination of personalized classroom and behavioural support, prescribed medication and adequate physical exercise.

What we do know from the research is that physical activity as an intervention for children with ADHD does no harm. Parents, educators and schools can feel comfortable integrating structured movement into a child’s day and throughout the school day with the knowledge it will have only positive effects, on average.

Team Sports Aren’t Always Best for Kids with ADHD

One final thought bears mentioning when it comes to implementing structured activity for kids with ADHD. As you consider ways to inject more physical activity into your child’s routine, look beyond team sports and competitive activities. For many children with learning disabilities, including some with ADHD, the complexities of organized team sports can present yet another learning challenge and source of potential marginalization. Highly skilled and competitive sports aren’t always the arena in which a child with ADHD feels comfortable. They might struggle to follow complex rules and comply with near military-level discipline, not to mention that their lack of focus and distractibility may mean their coordination and skill level in structured sports lags behind that of peers without ADHD. Dr. Hoza suggests, “In today’s world there are so many children’s sports that are very competitive, and those wouldn’t be the best choice for kids with ADHD who have a hard time following directions or might not be as coordinated as their peers.”

Individual sports like swimming, martial arts, track and field, and tennis can allow your child to experience the thrill of training and competition without the team structure and complexity of some other pursuits. And, of course, nothing beats an old-fashioned bike ride or casual game of soccer in the park. Whichever physical pursuits spark your child’s interest and work within your family routine are the best bet!


Have you found physical activity a useful part of your child’s ADHD treatment plan?

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