The Educational Advantage of Exercise for Students with ADHD

The next time you feel compelled to direct a distracted and seemingly rambunctious child to remain still and seated, consider a counter-strategy: encourage movement.

Recent research has indicated that one of the best ways to improve children’s sustained attention is to first engage them in aerobic activities. In a study assessing performance on academic tasks in eight to ten-year-olds, researchers found that children who spent 20 minutes either swiftly walking or jogging in between lessons demonstrated meaningful gains in math, reading comprehension, and attentional focus after the exercise (Pontifex, Saliba, Raine, Picchietti, & Hillman, 2013; Reynolds, 2014). Not only did the children surpass their earlier scores – they outperformed their peers in a control group, who spent the 20 minutes quietly reading.

One factor about the study carries surprising implications for the way we teach and treat children who struggle with attention. Half of the children in this sample had ADHD.

When exposed to the physical activity condition, these children scored significantly higher on demanding attention-shifting tasks, and self-corrected more readily than their previously sedentary selves.

Why might exercise have bolstered the ability to attend so remarkably among children with ADHD? The answer, researchers contend, lies in the positive impact that exercise has on the ability to self-regulate, or control, behavior.

In this sense, a burst of activity can yield a period of prolonged and productive focus. Educators and parents alike can apply these findings by implementing brief movement breaks between demanding lessons or activities. With an appropriate outlet in place, a highly active child could very well become a focused learner.

Does the research leave you unconvinced? Consider, then, the two-and-half decade old suggestion from the beloved children’s musician Raffi: often, children may simply need to “shake [their] sillies out” to get back on track.

To learn more about treatment options for children and adults with ADHD, contact us to schedule an appointment. At Georgetown Psychology Associates, we provide a range of evaluation and therapy services tailored to your needs, as well as to those of your family.