Meta-analysis suggests regular exercise improves core symptoms and executive functions in child and adolescent ADHD

Meta-analysis Suggests Regular Exercise Improves Core Symptoms and Executive Functions in Child and Adolescent ADHD

A Chinese study team has performed an updated meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) published through July 2022, looking specifically at the effects of chronic exercise on ADHD core symptoms and executive functions in children and adolescents.

A Chinese study team has performed an updated meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) published through July 2022, looking specifically at the effects of chronic exercise on ADHD core symptoms and executive functions in children and adolescents.

The researchers defined chronic to mean exercise interventions lasting at least six weeks, with the longest clocking in at well over a year (72 weeks). 

They only included RCTs with blinding of all assessors who measured the primary outcomes, to guard against any conscious or unconscious bias.

A total of 22 studies met criteria for inclusion in the series of meta-analyses they performed. The RCTs were widely distributed, with four from North America, three from Africa, three from Europe, eleven from Asia, and one from Oceania.

Three studies were rated as being at low risk of bias, the other 19 at moderate risk of bias.

Meta-analysis of eleven RCTs with a combined 514 participants reported a small-to-medium reduction in ADHD core symptoms. Between-study variation (heterogeneity) was moderate, and there was no indication of publication bias.

Breaking that down by age group, for children (eight RCTs, 357 children) the reduction in core symptoms was likewise small-to-medium, versus a medium effect size reduction among adolescents (three RCTs, 157 adolescents), with no heterogeneity.

When the control group received no treatment or was sedentary (8 RCTs, 422 participants), the effect size remained small-to-medium, whereas when the control group received education, it became large (two RCTs, 58 participants). 

Improvements in executive functions were even more pronounced. Meta-analysis of 17 RCTs with a combined 795 participants yielded a medium-to-large effect size reduction in executive functions overall. Heterogeneity was moderate, with absolutely no sign of publication bias.

More specifically, there was a medium effect size improvement in working memory (10 RCTs, 290 participants), a medium-to-large effect size improvement in cognitive flexibility (8 RCTs, 206 participants), and a large effect size improvement in inhibition (12 RCTs, 299 participants). 

Once again, adolescents benefited more than children. Whereas children showed medium effect size improvements in executive function (14 RCTs, 659 children), adolescents registered enormous improvements (3 RCTs, 136 adolescents).

One note of caution, though. Among RCTs rated low risk of bias, effect size improvements in both ADHD core symptoms (3 RCTs, 180 participants) and executive functions (2 RCTs, 86 participants) were small and did not reach statistical significance. That suggests a need for more and better RCTs to reach a more settled verdict.

For now, the authors concluded, “This meta-analysis suggests that CEIs [chronic exercise interventions] have small-to-moderate effects on overall core symptoms and executive functions in children and adolescents with ADHD.”

February 12, 2024

How Effective Is Exercise in Treating ADHD?

New meta-analysis explores effectiveness of physical exercise as treatment for ADHD

Noting that "Growing evidence shows that moderate physical activity (PA) can improve psychological health through enhancement of neurotransmitter systems," and "PA may play a physiological role similar to stimulant medications by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters, thereby alleviating the symptoms of ADHD," a Chinese team of researchers performed a comprehensive search of the peer-reviewed journal literature for studies exploring the effects of physical activity on ADHD symptoms.

They found nine before-after studies with a total of 232 participants, and fourteen two-group control studies with a total of 303 participants, that met the criteria for meta-analysis.

The meta-analysis of before-after studies found moderate reductions in inattention and moderate-to-strong reductions in hyperactivity/impulsivity. It also reported moderate reductions in emotional problems and small-to-moderate reductions in behavioral problems.

The effect was even stronger among unmediated participants. There was a very strong reduction in inattention and a strong reduction in hyperactivity/impulsivity.

The meta-analysis of two-group control studies found strong reductions in inattention, but no effect on hyperactivity/impulsivity. It also found no significant effect on emotional and behavioral problems.

There was no sign of publication bias in any of the meta-analyses.

The authors concluded, "Our results suggest that PA intervention could improve ADHD-related symptoms, especially inattention symptoms. However, due to a lot of confounders, such as age, gender, ADHD subtypes, the lack of rigorous double-blinded randomized-control studies, and the inconsistency of the PA program, our results still need to be interpreted with caution."

February 21, 2022

Exercise Found To Improve Certain ADHD Symptoms

Meta-analysis finds physical activity improves executive functions in persons with ADHD

ADHD patients may substantially improve executive functions through persistent and protracted physical exercise.

Executive function(EF) is associated with the prefrontal cortex. It includes three core components: inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Inhibitory control is the ability to avoid distractions, inhibit or control impulsive responses, and change to more thoughtful responses. Cognitive flexibility involves switching mental tasks or strategies, seeing problems from multiple perspectives, and identifying different ways of solving them. Working memory involves holding information in the mind ready for an ongoing processing.


Persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD, are known to have EF deficits relative to their normally-developing counterparts.


An international research team conducted a comprehensive search of the peer-reviewed medical literature to identify studies that have explored how physical activity affects those deficits in persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically ADHD.


They identified 34 studies with 1,058 participants, of which 13 with 400 looked specifically at ADHD. There was substantial geographic diversity in the ADHD studies, spanning the globe: the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Taiwan, South Korea, Iran, Israel, and Tunisia.


Among the ADHD studies, a meta-analysis found physical activity improved executive functions overall, with a large effect size. More specifically, it included twelve tests of inhibitory control, four for working memory, three for cognitive flexibility, and one each for switching and planning (there was often more than one tester in the study).


There was no sign of publication bias. There was, however, substantial heterogeneity between studies. A further breakdown indicated substantial divergence by type of physical activity, with a large effect size for sports, medium effect sizes for aerobic exercise and motor skills training, and small effect size for exergaming (video games that are also a form of exercise).


Session time also made a big difference. Sessions at least an hour long had large effect sizes, those between 45 minutes and an hour had medium effect sizes, and shorter sessions had smaller effect sizes.
Improvements in inhibitory control had large effect sizes, those in cognitive flexibility had medium-to-large effect sizes, and those in working memory had small-to-medium effect sizes. All of which suggest ADHD patients can substantially improve executive functions through persistent and protracted physical exercise.

February 5, 2022

Meta-analyses Suggest Physical Exercise is Effective Tool in Treating ADHD

Two meta-analyses suggest physical exercise is an effective tool in treating ADHD

Two recent meta-analyses, one by an Asian team, and the other by a European team, have reported encouraging results on the efficacy of physical exercise in treating ADHD among children and adolescents.

One, a Hong Kong-based team (Liang et al. 2021) looked at the effect of exercise on executive functioning.

The team identified fifteen studies with a combined total, of 493 participants that met the criteria for inclusion. As the authors noted, "only a few studies successfully blinded participants and therapists, due to the challenges associated with executing double-blind procedures in non-pharmacological studies."

After adjusting for publication bias, the meta-analysis of the fifteen studies found a large improvement in overall executive functioning.

The studies varied in which aspects of executive functioning were addressed. A meta-analysis of a subset of eleven studies encompassing 406 participants found a large improvement in inhibitory control. A meta-analysis of another subset, of eight studies with a total of 311 participants, found a large improvement in cognitive flexibility. Finally, a meta-analysis of a subset of five studies encompassing 198 participants found a small-to-medium improvement in working memory.

Nine studies involved acute (singular) exercise interventions lasting 5 to 30 minutes, while twelve studies involved chronic (regular) exercise interventions ranging from 6 to 12 weeks, with a total duration of 12 to 75 hours. The chronic exercise was more than twice as effective as acute exercise. The former resulted in large improvements in overall executive functioning, the latter in small-to-medium improvements.

No significant differences were found between aerobic exercises (such as running and swimming) and cognitively engaging exercises(such as table tennis and other ball games, and exergaming ... video games that are also a form of exercise, relying on technology that tracks body movements).

The authors concluded that "Chronic sessions of exercise interventions with moderate intensity should be incorporated as a treatment for children with ADHD to promote executive functions."

Meanwhile, a German study team (Seiffer et al. 2021) looked at the effects of regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on ADHD symptoms in children and adolescents.

They found eleven studies meeting their criteria, with a combined total of 448 participants. A meta-analysis of all eleven studies found a small-to-moderate decline in ADHD symptoms. However, the three studies with blinded outcome assessors found a large and statistically highly significant decline in symptoms, whereas the eight studies with blinded outcome evaluators found only a small decline that was not statistically significant.

When compared with active controls using pharmacotherapy in a subgroup of two studies with 146 participants, pharmacotherapy held a small-to-moderate advantage that fell just short of statistical significance, most likely because of the relatively small sample size.

The authors concluded that moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) "could serve as an alternative treatment for ADHD," but that additional randomized controlled trials "are necessary to increase the understanding of the effect regarding frequency, intensity, type of MVPA interventions, and differential effects on age groups."

December 5, 2021

Immediate and Long-term Effects of Exercise on ADHD Symptoms and Cognition

Immediate and longer-term effects of exerciseon ADHD symptoms and cognition

A team of Spanish researchers has published a systematic review of 16 studies with a total of 728 participants exploring the effects of physical exercise on children and adolescents with ADHD. Fourteen studies were judged to be of high quality, and two of medium quality.

Seven studies looked at the acute effects of exercise on eight to twelve-year-old youths with ADHD. Acute means that the effects were measured immediately after periods of exercise lasting up to 30 minutes. Five studies used treadmills and two used stationary bicycles, for periods of five to 30 minutes. Three studies "showed a significant increase in the speed of reaction and precision of response after an intervention of 20-30 min, but at moderate intensity (50-75%)." Another study, however, found no improvement in mathematical problem-solving after 25 minutes using a stationary bicycle at low (40-50%) or moderate intensity (65-75%). The three others found improvements in executive functioning, planning, and organization in children after 20- to 30-minute exercise sessions.

Nine studies examined longer-term effects, following regular exercise over many weeks. One reported that twenty consecutive weekly yoga sessions improved attention. Another found that moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) led to improved behavior beginning in the third week, and improved motor, emotional and attentional control, by the end of five weeks. A third study reported that eight weeks of starting the school day with 30 minutes of physical activity led to improvement in Connor's ADHD scores, oppositional scores, and response inhibition. Another study found that twelve weeks of aerobic activity led to declines in bad mood and inattention. Yet another reported that thrice-weekly 45-minute sessions of MVPA over ten weeks improved not only muscle strength and motor skills, but also attention, response inhibition, and information processing.

Two seventy-minute table tennis per week over twelve weeks improved executive functioning and planning, in addition to locomotor and object control skills.

Two studies found a significant increase in brain activity. One involved two hour-long sessions of rowing per week for eight weeks, the other three 90-minute land-based sessions per week for six weeks. Both studies measured higher activation of the right frontal and right temporal lobes in children, and lower theta/alpha ratios in male adolescents.

All 16 studies found positive effects on cognition. Five of the nine longer-term studies found positive effects on behavior. No study found any negative effects. The authors of the review concluded that physical activity "improves executive functions, increases attention, contributes to greater planning capacity and processing speed and working memory, improves the behavior of students with ADHD in the learning context, and consequently improves academic performance." Although the data are limited by a lack of appropriate controls, they suggest that, in addition to the well-known positive effects of physical activity, one may expect to see improvements in ADHD symptoms and associated features, especially for periods of sustained exercise.

July 18, 2021