Cities like Winnipeg seem to come alive in the summer. As soon as spring hits, we jump at the chance to wear sandals and put away our down-filled parkas. Gradually, the sidewalks and fields dry out and we dust off the running shoes and bikes, anxious to enjoy every moment of warm sunshine. The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week for adults and 60 minutes per day for children and adolescents. There are many physical benefits to activity and exercise, as well as emotional and mental health benefits.
A number of studies have investigated the impact of exercise on focus and attention, finding that regular exercise has a positive impact on children’s ability to attend to new information (also known as working memory). Working memory and attention are areas of thinking that are core difficulties for children and teenagers with ADHD. A recent study by Ziereis and Jansen (2015) looked at the effect that physical activity has on children with a diagnosis of ADHD and whether it changed their performance on working memory tasks.
Children aged 7 to 12 were assigned to three groups, a control group (who were on a waitlist for the program), a group who participated in various activities such as swimming, climbing, and gymnastics, and a group who did focussed skills such as balance training, throwing and catching, and juggling. The latter two groups participated in activities once a week for 12 weeks. The researchers measured working memory/attention performance before and after the programs and found a significant improvement for those who participated in either physical activity program, but no difference for children in the control group.
The study tells us three important things:
1. Physical activity has a positive effect on attention-related skills in children with ADHD. Getting out and doing a sport or training for just an hour each week was enough to boost working memory ability. Working memory is essential for remembering new information and also for understanding it.
2. The type of physical activity doesn’t seem to matter; that is, kids don’t necessarily need specific skill training in order for it to improve their working memory. Some kids enjoy the drills and practices of soccer camp, others might prefer to splash around in the pool, but either will be a benefit to their ability to learn.
3. It is important for exercise to be continuous. Ziereis and Jansen did look at whether attention improved after just one week and found that it was the same as prior to the activity. So it’s more than just going for a run before a test, make physical activity a regular and continuous habit to reap the most benefits.
Summer is a great time to get started with new activities and sports, and continuing into fall and winter will give kids with ADHD a big advantage when they get back to school.
By Kristi MacDonald
Ziereis, S., & Jansen, P. (2015). Effects of physical activity on executive function and motor performance in children with ADHD. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 181-191. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2014.12.005