April 4, 2019

Exercise and ADHD: How Physical Activity Boosts the Brain and Cognitive Performance

Physical activity have a positive effect on cognitive performance and executive function such as learning, problem solving and attention span.

Exercise and ADHD: How Physical Activity Boosts the Brain and Cognitive Performance

Evidence supports the beneficial effects physical activity have on cognitive performance and brain processing. Making these findings interesting to look into in relation to the challenges of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Top things to know

  • ADHD is a difference in brain chemistry and structure.
  • Individuals with ADHD show diminished blood flow to the prefrontal regions of the brain.
  • Some common cognitive challenges experienced by people with ADHD include: being easily distracted, not being able to follow directions or finish tasks, forgetting about daily activities, having problems organising, losing things, and a distorted sense of time.
  • ADHD cognitive challenges may be improved with exercise, diet and lifestyle changes.

People with ADHD face unique challenges due to the traits of ADHD. The challenges of ADHD are in direct conflict with the demands of the classroom and many academic fields, where, for example, student learning is centred around a learning process with an expectancy of being still, staying seated, paying attention, concentration, memorization and following directions. This makes the classroom environment especially challenging for people with ADHD to navigate in (1).

Unique brain structure

Several studies show that the ADHD brain shows structural differences in the prefrontal cortex, which affects selective and divided attention, attention shifting, planning, executive control, and working memory. Another finding in the ADHD brain showed that the prefrontal region is structured differently compared to individuals without ADHD (2). The prefrontal region affects complex and effortful cognitive processing and is thought to modulate reward-based decision making. Additionally, these areas of the brain have also been identified as having significantly diminished blood flow in individuals with ADHD (1).

Executive function is thought to be highly relevant for daily life activities as well as academic and social functions (3). Executive function is responsible for these 5 skills:

  • Working memory and paying attention
  • Organizing and planning
  • Initiating tasks and staying focused on them
  • Regulating emotions and inhibitions
  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you're doing)

Research throughout time has consistently documented that ADHD is characterized by executive function challenges, where ADHD children perform don’t perform as well with executive function tasks than their control group.

Executive function challenges are not insignificant, especially for students or children. As an example, in the classroom, executive function controls the ability to process incoming information, while listening to the teacher, to identify relevant information, to inhibit irrelevant thoughts, to hold relevant information in mind while linking it to other relevant information, and to stay focused on the task at hand.

Therefore, understanding ways to improve the cognitive and executive functions abilities of individuals with ADHD is crucially important (1).

Clearly, challenges with executive functions could impact an individual’s ability to reach their full potential. Research has also found a great contrast to the academic achievements of children with ADHD relative to control children. Therefore, understanding ways to improve the cognitive and executive functions abilities of individuals with ADHD is crucially important (1).

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The impact of exercise on the ADHD brain

Studies have shown that physical activity positively impacts the neurobiological factors of ADHD, like increasing blood flow to the brain. Additionally, there is evidence that physical activity results in changes in brain structure, that scientists expect could positively influence cognitive abilities.

Research with adults shows that subjects who are more physically active show positive benefits in their brain structure, as well as greater brain activity in the regions associated with behavioral and attentional control processes. A study with fourth-class students' showed that physical activity for 10-minutes throughout the school day effectively increased the students' on-task behavior (4).

There is evidence, though limited in number and not all with a control group, that physical activity benefits cognitive function in general and in particular executive function. Studies with individuals of all ages shows significant positive cognitive effects of physical activity. Thus making exercise a plausible positive impact for individuals with ADHD in increasing their executive functions.

The effect of exercise on behavioral symptoms, hyperactivity, impulse control, and medication dosage

Several studies from the 1980s support the positive effect physical activity can have on ADHD traits. A study with 12 boys, all with behavioral challenges tested the effect of a 6-week jogging program; no jogging or a 5-minute warm-up jog followed by either 5 or 10 min of jogging 3 times per week. Throughout the school day, 5 types of behavior (hitting/bothering others, name calling/throwing things, yelling/talking out of turn, moving or sitting inappropriately, refusing to cooperate or participate) was recorded. Results show a reduction of 50% in disruptive behaviors on jogging days compared to non-jogging days, and an increase in attention span and impulse control with those who ran before class (4).

Another study found that children with ADHD participating in a regular exercise program for 6 weeks showed significant improvements in behavior compared to the control group of children with ADHD that received no exercise (1).

Another study looked into the effects that a 12-week running programme could have on hyperactivity, impulse control, and medication dosage. The results showed that running decreased hyperactivity and impulsivity, but most interesting, those who ran were able to decrease their dose of medication.

Though, when the children stopped running their behaviors returned to the first assessed baseline levels (5).

Physical activity as therapy treatment

The evidence, although limited, shows that exercise and overall physical activity can have a positive impact on behavior and cognitive performance, and that physical activity could be used as an alternative therapy treatment. Furthermore, exercise might be an effective supplement to medication in order to reduce impulsive outbursts and behavior patterns that interfere with social and/or learning/academic progress.

Individuals who do not respond to medication, or those who seek alternative forms for treatment due to unwanted side-effects, may benefit from the use of physical activity as treatment instead.

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