Recess important for ADHD kids
Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) behave better when they exercise, a new study has revealed.
Over the last few years, studies in animals and people with ADHD have shown exercise may reduce impulsivity and improve attention.
The findings suggest exercise could be used as an alternative ADHD treatment, or in combination with medications, experts say.
Researchers emphasize that studies so far have been small, and much more work is needed to validate these results. And we don’t yet know what types of exercise, or what amount, might bring a benefit, experts say.
However, the findings raise concerns that taking away recess from kids with ADHD, which is a common form of punishment for acting out in class, might actually fuel more bad behaviour, experts say.
“In general, kids who have ADHD need to have their gym class, need to have their recess,” Melvin Oatis, a child psychiatrist in New York City, said.
Generally, if a teacher knows a child has ADHD, they should use other forms of discipline, such as encouraging good behaviour, Oatis said.
Currently, many of those who treat children with ADHD believe exercise is helpful, and some use exercise recommendations as an adjunct to, but not replacement for, medication, Oatis said.
The idea is that children with ADHD feel less restless and more focused after they expend some energy, Oatis said. However, Oatis noted that this isn’t the case for all children – some kids’ energy levels are ramped up after exercise, and they can’t settle back down, he said.
Exercise and ADHD medications act on the brain in very similar ways, said Thomas Lenz, an associate pharmacy professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
Both are thought to increase levels of brain chemicals called dopamine and norepinephrine, which help people think, focus and control their actions, Lenz said. An imbalance of these chemicals is thought to contribute to ADHD symptoms, Lenz said.
Researchers have just begun to study exercise as a potential treatment for ADHD.
It’s a common scenario for children with ADHD to have recess taken away as punishment for acting out in class, said Ruth Hughes, clinical psychologist and CEO of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), who often hears from parents about the issue.
“It’s very frustrating for parents,” Hughes said.
“The need for that physical activity is important for these kids. They would behave better if they had a chance to be running around in recess,” he said.
Lenz likened taking away recess from kids with ADHD to taking away food from a person with low blood sugar who has become irritable. The food, just like the recess, is what is needed to improve symptoms.
“You’re actually just pulling away the treatment they need to make that behaviour become more in line,” Lenz said.
However, Oatis, the child psychiatrist from New York, said, for some children, taking away recess might motivate kids to change their behaviour. And because children with ADHD can have other mental health issues, including anxiety, bad behaviour in class may not necessarily be a result of their ADHD.
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